A Vietnamese-born woman who thought she had witnessed a home invasion robbery asked if she should have called police, since in her homeland she didn't trust law enforcement officials.
Another wondered if the constant beatings she'd received from her husband here were normal, because there was no law back in Vietnam protecting women from such abuse. And a local businessman wanted to know how to detect fraudulent checks, since all his transactions in Vietnam had been in cash.
These are just some of the legal questions posed by residents of Orange County's Little Saigon, home to many of the 300,000 Vietnamese Americans living in Southern California.
And it's up to Linda Le to answer them.
Le is coordinator of the Orange County district attorney's office program designed to educate Vietnamese immigrants about how to report crimes and where to go for help if they are victims.
The Vietnamese Education Services Program, created in 1999, is designed to break down stereotypes and apprehensions that some in the Vietnamese community hold about law enforcement. Many Little Saigon residents fled from the Communist regime in Vietnam, and some maintain a distrust of police officers and government authority, she said.
"The toughest part about my job is getting people to open up to you and trust you. When they hear you're from law enforcement, they automatically shy away," said Le. "We know that no matter what, the police officer is your first response. If they don't trust them, it's going to be hard."
The effort, funded with a $150,000 federal grant, includes a 50-member committee that was formed to discuss ways to tackle crime in Little Saigon.
Recently, the program published a 60-page booklet in Vietnamese listing phone numbers and tips for crime victims. Similar booklets offering ways to avoid being victimized by home-invasion robberies and immigration fraud will soon hit the printers. In June, a mock trial will be held to educate the community about domestic abuse and to make clear how the legal system works.
"They need to observe so they don't get this fear [about the system]," said Le, 29. Some immigrants are "so afraid that even during jury duty, they don't come."
Le spends her weekends at churches, passing out pamphlets and explaining the program to those who will listen. Some just walk away when they hear that she works for law enforcement. She attends the Tet Festival, which attracts more than 100,000 people, to survey immigrants about their crime fears. Focus group workshops are held every month.
"We're trying to understand what keeps them from working with police," said Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas, who initiated the effort.
Little Saigon is the focus of a major crackdown on organized crime, ranging from illegal gambling to trademark infringement, authorities say. An FBI crime survey of the area completed last year reported activity by the Wah Ching gang--one of the best-known Asian crime groups, with links to 300-year-old criminal societies in Hong Kong. The survey also found that businesses in Little Saigon were victims of protection rackets and extortion by organized syndicates.
One of the challenges in dealing with crime in the Vietnamese community is the culture of the immigrants, who come from a society without trademark laws and where knockoff fashions are common, officials said.
One goal of the district attorney's program is to help law enforcement become more sensitive to the community, which officials hope will in turn result in more cooperation. Le plans to spearhead a class to teach police officers, attorneys and administrators about Vietnamese culture.
"We're training law enforcement in crime issues, like how to respond to a Vietnamese victim in a car accident and how to approach them," Le said.
Commission member Cuong Cao, director of a Garden Grove-based community service organization that promotes education and Vietnamese arts, said the program has many good intentions.
"There is no other program like this out there," Cao said. "It's needed in our community, because some people don't understand the law."
But some members said they are disappointed and even losing interest because they believe that the program hasn't reached the audience it targets and that bureaucracy limits its potential.
Some on the commission, made up of community leaders and business owners, don't have time to volunteer. The volunteer group has dwindled to 29 active members who now meet every two or three months, rather than once a month, members said.
Members hope to see more organization and involvement since being notified that there will be funding to air public service announcements on local Vietnamese language media, which play a major communication role in the community.
Rackauckas said it's too early to determine whether their efforts will prove successful. But he said it only takes a few people to make a difference.
"As people feel more comfortable with law enforcement and they become more of a partnership, we're a lot more able to crack crimes," he said. "It doesn't take a thousand people. It only takes a few."