Born in Vietnam, Made in the USA. Police Chief Phan Ngo, Overcoming Stereotypes.
Sunnyvale, CA Police Chief Phan Ngo is one of the highest ranking Vietnamese Americans in law enforcement in the country since his transition as Deputy Police Chief in San Jose, CA to become the Chief for the Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety in November 2016.
Born and raised in Vietnam, Ngo fled the country with two aunts and uncles during the last days of the fall of Saigon, April 30, 1975. On May 1st, 1975 his family was airlifted outside of the airport in Saigon to the Philippines, then to Guam before finally arriving at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas in the United States.
Ngo and his family were sponsored to San Francisco in July 1975. Like many superhero stories, this was the place where he witnessed crimes happen in his neighborhood and was inspired to combat them somehow.
In his perfect American accent, he said, “I remember going outside, seeing people drunk and fighting each other. These were typical issues in my poor neighborhood. That was the first time I wanted to become a police officer. I want to help and protect people,” Ngo recalled. The seed was planted in his heart and bloomed into a successful 27-year career in law enforcement and counting.
In school he pursued a career typically expected of Vietnamese kids, he was going to be a lawyer. So naturally a degree in Administrative Justice at San Jose State University would be a perfect start. He recalled during one class discussion, the topic of "Why did we have such a hard time recruiting Asians into the police force?" came up. There was an overwhelming resolve from the class - Asians did not have the presence nor the command needed to become police officers. Boy were they wrong! Ngo is not a man of typical large stature you'd expect to see in an American police officer, but he has a presence and passion that is undeniable.
Ngo recounts, “There were recruiters from SJPD who came to talk to us and I still remember not seeing a single Asian officer in charge of recruiting. I saw it as a challenge and so I applied to be a part of the San Jose Police Department.”
His goal of going to law school officially ended when he applied to join the SJPD. He recognized he will face unique challenges as a Vietnamese American candidate based on his memory of the above mentioned class discussion. Yet despite it all he overcame these stereotypes and negative perceptions. The first few years with the SJPD helped set the tone for Chief Ngo’s policing philosophy.
He began his career with the SJPD during the early 1990's. The timing couldn't have been better. The city faced a crisis where Vietnamese families were targeted and victimized by Vietnamese gangs. The fear coming from the community was palpable. Ngo was one of the only four Vietnamese American officers at the time. Working on the assignment with the Vietnamese community opened his eyes. He soon saw the positive impact he was able to contribute to the community in making arrests, shutting down robbers, and providing meaningful results immediately.
“Community policing” was a new term the SJPD designed to connect officers with the community by working with nonprofits to help prevent kids from joining gangs and becoming crime victims. Ngo organized clean up days in the Santee neighborhood as studies show cleaner neighborhoods help decrease crimes.
Today, as he reflects back, Chief Ngo is most proud of the relationship he fostered with the Vietnamese community. This community engagement philosophy is one that he carried with him as he stepped up as Police Chief of Sunnyvale, CA.
When asked about how Ngo plans on inspiring a whole new generation of young Vietnamese Americans to join law enforcement, he enthusiastically responded, “My main message to not only Vietnamese Americans but to everyone is: to follow your passion and follow your dreams. You have to love what you do, and if you have the passion for it, you are going to be successful no matter what.”
For updates on Chief Phan Ngo, follow @SunnyvaleChief on Twitter.
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Viviane Nguyen She is a lover of politics. She has researched and worked in different levels of government in San Jose, Sacramento, Washington D.C., and Thailand. She is motivated to highlight issues impacting the Vietnamese-American community and Asian American communities at large. She was formerly a Cal-in-Sacramento Fellow at UC Berkeley and notably a Public Policy and International Affairs Fellow at the Goldman School of Public Policy. She wants to write to show why politics, especially since 2016, is important.