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Vietnamese recruit changes job to become OKC police officer

Recruit Bo Pham is shown at the Oklahoma City Police Department Training Center. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman]
Recruit Bo Pham is shown at the Oklahoma City Police Department Training Center. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman]

Born thousands of miles away and belonging to a community that often is distrustful of government and law enforcement, recruit Bo Pham is working to realize his dream of becoming an Oklahoma City police officer.

Pham, 46, originally from Vietnam, has spent most of his life in Oklahoma. Owner of Cafe Bella in southwest Oklahoma City and a successful information technology manager, Pham said something was missing in his life.

“As an adult, what happened was I discovered more and more about the police department and started to develop quite an admiration and respect for the Oklahoma City Police Department,” Pham said.

It was at the cafe years ago that Pham met Loc Nguyen, now a detective in the department. Pham said he went to high school with Nguyen and was surprised to see another Vietnamese-American come through the cafe in uniform.

“It really shocked me … because I didn’t know, at that time, anybody that was Vietnamese in the police department. So, I was really surprised, and generally shocked, but yet impressed when I saw that this other Asian individual made this decision. And it really helped also inspire me,” Pham said.

When Pham approached his wife about becoming an officer 12 years ago, he said she was scared and adamant that she didn't want him to join.

“My wife … she didn’t know anything about law enforcement; it’s kind of like as a whole, ‘Wow, that sounds scary.’ It wasn’t that she didn’t support the police or anything, it’s just that she had this fear and anxiety,” Pham said.

With more interaction with officers at the cafe, and as their two children grew older, Pham said his wife eventually came around.

Filling a gap

This is his second try at getting through the Oklahoma City Police Department’s academy. He was in the academy two years ago but injured his ankle. Still recovering from the injury during last year’s academy, Pham was granted a spot in the academy this year.

“I’m actually enjoying it quite a bit, especially the second time through. The stress level is a little bit more manageable because you kind of understand the program now,” he said.

Pham said the most rewarding part of the academy so far is helping other recruits. He’s gone as far as taking his own personal time to meet other recruits at his local church and offer them help on ironing their shirts, shining their shoes and how to polish their brass.

Once an officer, Pham will join a police force where about 82 percent of officers are white. According to data released by the department last year, 6.3 percent of officers are black, 5.8 percent are Hispanic and 1 percent are Asian.

“With the Vietnamese community ... there’s a lot of lack of understanding with law enforcement,” Pham said. “A lot of the foreign countries, when it comes to Asian countries, has distrust with government and law enforcement.”

Only one patrol officer within the department is Vietnamese, Pham said, though there have been others that have risen through the ranks to higher positions. Having only one Vietnamese-speaking officer on the street can make it difficult when dealing with calls with Vietnamese speakers.

“If I can get out there, I will be able to help kind of fill that gap,” Pham said of his desire to work as a bilingual officer. “If I can arrive on scene as part of a bi-lingual unit ... I feel like it can make a huge impact in the type of service that we can provide.”

Breaking the stigma

Overall, Pham said he’s received support in his decision, except from his parents.

“My parents, especially my father, was 100 percent non-supportive,” he said. “We’re still on talking terms, we really just don’t bring it up anymore. It was a bit ugly when I advised him, and I knew that this would be ugly because I knew what it meant if I told them that I was applying to be a police officer.”

Pham said there was a “stigma” surrounding his choice to join, but one of his challenges going forward will be to prove to his father and to the community what the positive outreach of the department can be.

“I’ll have to go out there and put in that outreach work and be able to show the community this is who I am,” he said. “I was a business owner, I gave it all up. I gave up my IT career in lucrative management positions to come here and do this. It means a lot to me to successfully pull that off.”

While he has the support of many, Pham said some questioned why he would make such a drastic change at his age.

He believes his age and life experiences would give him an advantage on the job, he said.

“We can relate to the people that we deal with,” Pham said. “The older that you are, the more that you understand and you have that compassion and you’re not quick to judge. You’re really there to just make sure that people get the help that they need and to protect those that can’t protect themselves.”

Josh Wallace

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