To his superiors in the Sacramento Police Department, Kengie Yang is no more notable than any of the other 22 rookies who were sworn into service with great joy Thursday. They are all the first of a new wave of officers hired to replenish a police force decimated by budget cuts and layoffs over the last five years.
It’s the story of community investment powered by a “yes” vote last November, when Sacramento voters overwhelmingly decided to raise the sales tax so that gutted city services could be restored.
The result – the sight of this 30-year-old in a blue uniform as one of the next generation of Sacramento police officers – is a remarkable return on that investment, because in Yang, Sacramento voters got much more than they bargained for when they said yes on Measure U.
A boy of only 6 when his family arrived in Sacramento from Laos in 1990, Yang witnessed a Hmong population struggling on the margins – suspicious and fearful of authority figures like the police.
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“In Laos, police are brutal and corrupt,” Yang said over coffee last week. “People still have that mentality.”
A search of Bee archives is littered with stories of Hmong families victimized by home invasions and preyed upon by thieves who knew their victims would not call police.
Yang’s path was different from some Hmong youngsters who were lured into gangs because their traditional family orders were scrambled by a permissive American culture – and by parents who lost their stature when they were unable to find work or learn English.
It all started because one person cared.
His father, Nhia Pao Yang, didn’t want his family isolated and unable to assimilate in the United States. So he moved his family from a Hmong enclave to a neighborhood in south Sacramento where they would be in the minority. Yang’s dad sent him to Ethel I. Baker Elementary School, in part because Hmong kids were few there in those years, Yang said.
“So you had to know how to speak English to communicate,” he said. “My dad took me out of my comfort zone.”
It doesn’t sound like much, but an immigrant parent sending his son out into the world so that he can master it – instead of instilling fear and keeping him close – is nothing short of heroic.
By all accounts, Kengie Yang did not waste the opportunity. He cherished his opportunities and believed it was his duty to care for others as others had cared for him.
He was a good student at Hiram Johnson High School, where his teachers mentored him and he mentored younger kids. He graduated from Sacramento State in four years with a degree in criminal justice. He was drawn to community service and worked for 12 years with the Roberts Family Development Center in Del Paso Heights.
“When I met him, he was raw and idealistic and he stayed idealistic as he matured,” said Derrell Roberts, whose center provides early childhood education, family education and many other services.
Yang worked with the kids at Roberts, was a big brother, a listening ear and a role model for kids whose friends ran with gangs.
“He sees the best in people, and I believe he is going to approach police work in a different way,” Roberts said.
The Sacramento Police Department needs him. By Yang’s estimate, there are only a handful of Hmong officers on the force. From a practical standpoint, Sac PD needs the new blood after five years of layoffs and stagnation.
“We laid off 180 sworn officers and 200 civilian staff,” Chief Sam Somers said. “We kept our academy running, but we haven’t been putting in kids through for ourselves … . We’re going to be hiring 150 people over the next two years.”
Early next year, Yang will be learning on the job as supervisors watch his every move on the streets. He will be on probation for 18 months following his six months in the police academy and a rigorous selection process.
In the academy, it was drilled into him never to stand in front of doorways because people who do get shot. He learned of Vu Nguyen, the Sacramento County sheriff’s detective who was gunned down in the line of duty while chasing a suspect in south Sacramento in 2007.
The killer was Jimmy Siackasorn, whose family also was from Laos.
Like his fellow police recruits, Yang feels a call to serve despite such dangers. “My inspiration has been my friends, my family, Mr. Roberts, my teachers. I don’t want to let them down,” Yang said.
“I love Sacramento.”
After coffee with Yang, I was glad I voted yes on Measure U, despite my misgivings. It turned out, we were investing in someone who went from refugee to police officer in less than a generation.
We were investing in the power of community. Public safety is built when one person who cares reaches out to another. The Police Department has hired such a person in Yang. It’s no wonder that Thursday’s swearing-in ceremony was a moment of joy for all involved.
“Whenever you have a graduation, a lot of people are smiling,” Somers said. “This time, everyone is smiling. It’s very satisfying that this is the start of rebuilding the organization and bringing it back to where it’s been.”