When night falls, Chinese restaurant chef A-Shun heads out in his SUV with a box of Red Bull in tow.
A-Shun patrols various south Sacramento neighborhoods from 9 p.m. until the early hours of the morning, waiting to respond to potential crimes targeting Asians. He is part of a self-organized volunteer patrol group of at least a dozen Chinese immigrants. Their ranks include waitresses and construction workers, store owners and massage therapists.
In an interview with The Sacramento Bee last month inside a Vietnamese-Chinese restaurant on Florin Road, a dozen of the patrol members decried what they called a lackluster response to a spate of robberies by police and argued they have no choice but to take security into their own hands. Speaking in Mandarin, A-Shun and others wondered aloud whether Asians were being targeted for their perceived financial success. The volunteers only shared their first names, saying they feared retaliation from police and criminals.
“We can’t think only about ourselves. We need to think about everyone,” said A-Shun, a father of two children, explaining why he started patrolling.
They have formed a chat group on Chinese social media app WeChat that now includes 1,000 Chinese residents of Sacramento. Residents use the platform to share safety tips and report crimes in progress. Any volunteer who sees the call can choose to respond, said Wei Xin Yang, a restaurant worker who is the lead organizer of this grass-roots effort.
Members of the group declined to let a Sacramento Bee reporter accompany them on a patrol, citing safety concerns, but described some of the calls they’ve recently responded to.
Just after 1 a.m. on a recent morning, residents of a home in the 7400 block of Villajoy Way alerted the patrol to an attempted home invasion in progress – someone ramming a jeep into the garage in what appeared to be an attempt to break down the door. Within minutes, about seven volunteers arrived, horns blaring and headlights shining, but the suspects had already left.
“We want to show that we are a force,” Yang said, raising his fist. “We want to reduce the loss of our compatriots and to prevent violence.”
When Sacramento police officers arrived at the Villajoy residence, they asked the residents to file a report online to document the damage for insurance purposes, since there was no suspect description or license plate obtained, according to Yang and police.
Raising his voice, Yang denounced that attitude as cavalier.
“This is racism,” he said. “If they don’t do anything, what’s the point of filing a report?”
Others in the group agreed, saying they felt that police didn’t want to help Chinese residents because “we’re not as important.”
Officer Traci Trapani, a Sacramento Police Department spokeswoman, defended the handling of the situation, saying nothing could be done in the case given the lack of a description for either a suspect or the vehicle.
Given the lack of details, it would have been a waste of time for an officer to write a report. “Officers need to respond to other higher priority calls,” Trapani said.
In another recent incident, members of the patrols said they chased a suspect vehicle for several blocks hoping to get the license plate to report to police. The chase ended when the home invasion suspects sped through stoplights, according to Yang.
He said the volunteers didn’t want to break the law, so they stopped the pursuit.
Each day, the citizen volunteers receive about four calls for service, which so far have included suspicious people, robberies and assaults. Sometimes the requests can double, and they occur at all hours of the day. Yang calls the app a “lifeline” for Chinese immigrants who don’t speak English or understand the laws of the United States.
Volunteers said they haven’t yet witnessed any violence.
Some of the volunteers said they have concealed weapons permits and carry guns on their patrols. Others at the interview said they are applying for a permit with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office, citing a south Sacramento crime wave that has kept many residents away from restaurants and supermarkets after dark.
Scott, who said he holds a concealed weapons permit, patrols around his gardening supply store and the neighborhood of Power Inn and Elder Creek roads, where his parents live. A native of the Chinese southern province of Guangxi, Scott said he will use his gun “only when necessary,” such as during a physical confrontation.
“In America, everyone should have the ability to protect oneself,” said Scott, who has a 10-month-old daughter.
So far, none of the patrol members have used their weapon. The group said that they would call police first, rather than get entangled in a confrontation.
The crimes targeting Asians have followed a pattern: The victims are robbed and attacked just as they exit their vehicle in a parking lot or at home, according to police and witness accounts. Authorities have described the suspects as African American men, ages 18 to 25.
Robberies have increased sharply in the area, according to a Bee review of the city’s crime reports database. Through Sept. 16, police have taken 74 reports of robberies this year in the area, up from 40 robberies during the same period of 2015 and 32 robberies during the same period in 2014. Reports of home invasions in the area rose from six by this point in 2015 to 14 so far this year, city police data show. Police say they have arrested at least 10 people this year who targeted Asian Americans.
Police reached out to residents earlier this year, posting a notice on the social media site Nextdoor that robberies in the area were on the rise and asking residents to be vigilant.
Yang insists on calling his group a “neighborhood watch program” and emphasized that members’ intentions are to stop crime against the Asian community, rather than spark a racial conflict. “We don’t want these patrols. We’d rather sit at home and watch TV, but only if the police did their jobs,” he said.
Former Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness called the citizen patrols dangerous.
“I understand the motivation, but responding to an emotionally charged, violent situation without the benefit of training and discipline could be an absolute recipe for disaster,” McGinness said.
But, he added, “(the patrols) could be part of what breaks the cycle. With community involvement, we are stronger together.”
While two months away from taking office, Sacramento Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg has discussed the issue at length with community leaders. He attended a forum that drew 600 Asian residents last month.
“Armed patrols are not the answer,” he said. “The answer is for the community to work together with law enforcement and public officials to create different ways for people to safely report crimes.”
If WeChat is the preferred method of communication for the Chinese community, Steinberg doesn’t rule out the Police Department using it.
“We’ve got to come to them,” Steinberg said.