Late last month, a Fairfax County jury convicted former day-laborer Julio Blanco Garcia of first-degree murder in the 2010 death of Vanessa Pham, a 19-year-old college student from Vienna. It took police investigators more than two years to charge Blanco Garcia, a Guatemalan national, with Pham’s murder. After his arrest, police attributed part of the delay to cultural and language barriers surrounding the case.
Last Saturday night, Phuoc Huu Nguyen was found fatally shot at the Eden Center. Police found the 35-year-old Vietnamese-American man in the center’s parking lot after receiving a report of a fight and gunfire. As of Wednesday afternoon, no arrests had been made in the case.
Although the two cases are unrelated, they underscore the ever-changing face of Fairfax County and the challenges a multilingual, multicultural citizenry places on local law enforcement.
According to the most recent U.S. Census figures, nearly one in five Fairfax residents (17.5 percent) is of Asian descent while Hispanics make up nearly 16 percent of Fairfax’s overall population. Those numbers drop considerably when applied to the Fairfax County Police Department, where only 4.3 percent of officers are Asian and 4.1 percent Hispanic.
On the flip side, white officers make up 84 percent of Fairfax County’s 1,360-member police department, significantly higher than the county’s general population (54 percent white).
This is not to suggest that two or three more Vietnamese officers could have prevented Nguyen’s death or that five more Hispanic officers would have brought Vanessa Pham’s killer to justice sooner, but organizations that understand the benefits of diversity are often better for it.
That’s particularly true in law enforcement, where gaining the community’s trust and cooperation is critical in identifying perpetrators and preventing crime. Before either of those things can be earned, there has to be a healthy level of communication. Sometimes that can come in the form of a smile or a pat on the back, but more often it comes from a conversation that involves a couple of questions and some heartfelt answers.
With English now spoken as a second language in nearly half of Fairfax homes, it’s probably safe to surmise that some critical conversations aren’t being had on the streets of Fairfax County. They probably weren’t taking place near any of those mall slashings in 2011 or at the Eden Center last Saturday night.
Transforming the look and feel of any organization is difficult.
For starters, it isn’t always easy to find applicants that are both qualified for or interested in a law enforcement career. It’s also worth noting that many Fairfax newcomers come from countries where police officers aren’t always viewed in a positive light.
Combine that with the increased dangers and dwindling dollars of the field, and it’s hardly surprising that more 20- and 30-somethings from places like Vietnam and Honduras aren’t more interested in becoming Fairfax County police officers.
That said, the hope here is that Fairfax continues working hard to broaden the base for future recruits. It may not prevent or solve every future crime in Fairfax, but it will help bridge a critical gap for thousands of the county’s newest residents.