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Feedback From Truly Pacific Islands

Two Bay Area officers travel to the peaceful Kingdom of Tonga and ask: How do we quell violence among young Tongan Americans?

June 18, 2005|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

SAN BRUNO, Calif. — The two Bay Area police officers had traveled to the Kingdom of Tonga searching for answers. Like students seeking the wisdom of an ancient sage, the officers asked about an issue that befuddled them: How do we quell violence among warring gangs of Tongan American youths?

The weeklong visit did not produce a recipe for peace. Instead, it provided the officers a different view of home.

In a place dubbed the "Friendly Islands," where children tend to obey their parents, police do not carry guns and crime is low, the officers could see the gang problem for what it is: as American as gangsta rap, Hollywood horror films and fast food.

"We learned that the violence that's going on over here is not typical of a Tongan male or female back on the island," said San Bruno Police Cpl. Mark Phillips.

Tongans there are "very loving, warm parents, nurturing to their children, extremely well-educated," he said. "You've got to know the other side of the coin to solve the problem."

The South Pacific trip has proved to be a milestone for police trying to prevent violence in the Tongan American community. The two officers who went on the March trip and their police chiefs say it has offered them credibility and respect, and entree into a community that they did not have before.

Among Tongans and Tongan Americans, the journey has opened up a wider -- sometimes contentious -- discussion. It has also generated a wild mix of reactions, from those who appreciate the police efforts to those who think the trip is absurd.

"If we have a Jewish [crime] problem in the U.S., do we go back to Israel?" asked Fuifuilupe Niumeitolu, a faculty member at New College of California in San Francisco.

Going to Tonga to understand Tongan American youths "negates that we are here in the United States, that we play a vibrant role. We're not just Tongans, we're a part of the United States," she said.

According to the 2000 U.S. census, there are 4,549 people in San Mateo County who identified themselves as Tongan, or Tongan and another race or ethnicity.

Families frequently travel the more than 3,900 miles between the Bay Area and the islands, as do those fleeing authorities, local police said.

The officers who traveled to Tonga -- Phillips and Burlingame Police Sgt. Edward S. Nakiso -- are seasoned veterans. They are gregarious, easygoing and passionate about their work. Nakiso is part Samoan.

In Tonga, a nation of about 100,000 people south of Samoa, they met with the speaker of the parliament, police and prison officials, and common folks. The royal band played for them and they were treated to a feast with a roasted pig.

"I'll never experience that again," Phillips said. "I'm just a small-town cop."

But he is a small-town cop dealing with a big-city problem. One gang is based in San Mateo, the other in San Bruno. Sometimes they meet in the middle, squaring off in Burlingame. The gangs go by names such as the Shoreview Crips and Baby Gangsters, police said.

Last year, the area experienced several violent incidents, "just an unusual spike that was destined to result in somebody dead," said San Bruno Police Chief Lee Violett.

In San Bruno, one man was shot at his doorstep and left paralyzed. Another was beaten with a pipe. After a beauty pageant at a Burlingame hotel, fighting broke out in the parking lot and shots were fired. Nine other police departments were called to control the crowd.

"It's not like the Tongans are going out and fighting anybody," Nakiso said. "They're fighting each other."

After learning that local Rotary Club member Emil Hons was planning a trip to Tonga, Violett came up with the idea of sending officers along. Other police chiefs agreed. Donations from local businesses and service organizations covered the $4,500 cost of the trip. The officers were expected to share what they learned -- and put it to use.

It is 8:45 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, and Phillips is patrolling San Bruno, a city of about 40,000 that sits in the shadow of San Francisco International Airport and is policed by 39 sworn officers.

As he drives the streets this night, Phillips spots three young men standing in front of a blue house. He slows down and rolls down the window.

"Malo e' lelei," he says, using a Tongan greeting he learned.

"Sai pe," comes the response -- then the recognition. "You the one that went to Tonga? How was it? People treat you good? You ate hella pig over there?"

"It's everywhere," he responds, referring to the popularity of pork in Tonga.

The officer and the young men talk about the capital of Nuku'alofa, the Tongan language and a spot called the Billfish. Then the officer wants to know how they are doing. He has visited this house before for a less cordial reason.

"Just trying to stay out of trouble," one young man says.

"It's appreciated," Phillips says before driving off.

Then he explains: "You have this white police officer looking at them saying, 'Malo e' lelei.' It breaks down cultural barriers."

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