About That Asian Crime Ring in Santa Ana: An Incomplete, Imperfect – and Honest – First Draft of History


Here’s a fact that appears to be lost in SoCal these days: You can condemn “Anti-Asian Hate” and also oppose Asian-American criminals.

You can hold those two distinct thoughts at the same time with no logical conflict.

I know so because I’ve been to Santa Ana, where a ring of Vietnamese-American criminals is making it harder for a lot of good folks to keep their good neighborhoods in good order.

* * *

You don’t have to hate anybody or anything to regret and oppose criminals who profit from exploiting society’s weak points, tears in our social fabric, pockets of vulnerability on the block or around the corner.

That’s a simple matter of knowing right from wrong.

Emotions are a different matter, though, more difficult to properly weigh.

The word “hate” summons plenty of emotions.

Add a more specific qualifier—“ethnic,” “racial” or “Asian”—and more emotions pour forth.

There is a reckoning about race and ethnicity at hand in America for some valid reasons—and those include many emotional aspects of the subject.

Such acknowledgements don’t make this reckoning of ours any less difficult, though. It remains our great obligation to find the proper measure of emotions to leaven anecdotal recollections, personal accounts, historical context, and empirical data about racial relations in America.

It is not at all clear that we’ve hit upon the right mix so far.
It has become quite clear that some volatile combination of emotion and fact often animates the reckoning.

Codify that combination in the form of academic theory and you enter new and challenging territory.

Make that theory the basis of journalistic coverage of racial relations in America, and you risk warping the story of how we handle this challenge with preconceived notions.

* * *

Journalism is often called the first draft of history for good reason. That’s what good journalism gives us even if it is incomplete by definition and imperfect by nature. Historians can sort out and make good use of the stuff so long as the effort is honest and diverse perspectives are available for consideration.

Fitting journalism into predetermined angles based on academic theory turns it into a revised edition of history and a preemptive outline for the future.

It’s notable that the media is not alone in struggling how to handle sensitivities on racial relations.

* * *

Let’s go back to Santa Ana, where both the police department and media outlets seem to have forgotten how to deliver facts and let members of the public consider them through their own intellectual and emotional lenses.

It was December of last year, when the FBI charged a Santa Ana Police Department officer named Steven Lopez with taking bribes “from a crime figure seeking to thwart law enforcement activities against his illegally operating businesses,” according to federal investigators.

That’s about all anyone was told—and even after Lopez pleaded guilty the local legacy and digital media didn’t bring forth any information about whom he might have been protecting. An officer was charged with corruption related to illegal activities on the streets of Santa Ana—and that’s about all the 340,000 or so residents of the city needed to know, the police and press seemed to agree.

The minimal communication looked to me like poor public policy.

The weak follow-up coverage struck me as bad journalism—a failure to serve the public interest under the auspices of the 1st Amendment.
It looked even worse when I considered that the meek coverage might have stemmed from a reluctance to cover the story because it pointed to a crime ring of Asian-Americans.

* * *

I did some reporting of my own, and soon noticed indicators of links between the crooked cop and a crime ring based in the Vietnamese-American community that’s centered in the Little Saigon district, which includes sections of Santa Ana and several other cities in Orange County. Neither the feds nor Santa Ana PD would talk—but there were other sources to tap, word on the street to monitor (you can see SullivanSays’ prior coverage here).

A number of sources connected some dots, noting that concerns ran deeper than gambling. By then there had been at least three murders tied to gambling this year in Santa Ana, and the cops had seized dozens of guns and various narcotics linked to at least 40 illegal dens.

The Orange County Register—the largest media outlet in the local market—largely left the story of the corrupt cop and the gambling dens in separate silos as part of glancing coverage. Voice of OC—a digital operation that gets a lot of awards from journalists’ organizations—seemed to adopt a union steward’s perspective on the story. Its coverage of the corruption case centered on the question of why the cop in question continued to get paid while his legal case played out.

Overlooked by both the Register and Voice of OC is the question of what was—and is—going on across the neighborhoods of Santa Ana. They have failed to connect any dots—facts, circumstances, concerns of people in the neighborhoods. They have buried a bigger story with wider implications for hard-working residents and neighborhoods of the city.

Buried even deeper is the question of whether the local media took a pass on going hard after the story because it involved Vietnamese-Americans running a crime ring. Did they ease off because the facts didn’t fit the parameters of their news judgment at a time when a focus on “Anti-Asian Hate” was the order of the day for much of the legacy, digital and social media?

To put it another way: Did they decline the difficult mission of writing the first draft of history, deciding to wait until it’s safe to write a revised edition, fully approved by theorists?

* * *

I continued to follow up on the story, getting enough documentation from Santa Ana PD to draw a line between a group of Vietnamese-Americans and the illegal gambling dens that threaten public safety in the city.
Reliable sources drew a line between Lopez—the crooked cop—and the crime ring.

I also learned that the cops of the Santa Ana Police Department have done yeoman’s work in battling the crime ring—and they appear to have done it in a remarkably effective way. Word around the city’s Civic Center says that the early response to the gambling dens, conducted under the banner of “Operation Community First,” saw numerous raids lead to dozens of arrests but not a single use of serious force by Santa Ana PD officers against any detainees.

So here’s what we’re dealing with:

A ring of Vietnamese-American criminals have been victimizing neighborhoods in Santa Ana by operating illegal gambling halls that also draw guns and drugs to the community.

Santa Ana PD has launched a campaign to shut down the criminal activity, remaining aggressive in defense of the community they serve while keeping use of force to a minimum.

That’s a compelling local story even before you consider its circumstances fly in the face of the current conventional perceptions of much of the media, which too often paints Asians as one-dimensional victims of hateful racism and too readily portrays cops as villains of civic life in America.

Today’s journalists might even note that a story involving a group of Asian-Americans running a crime ring and a well-measured response by the cops amounts to a 2021 version of a “man-bites-dog story.”

That’s a phrase that describes a story that is newsworthy precisely because it flies in the face of conventional perceptions.

But it looks as though that dog won’t hunt with much of today’s media.

* * *

Consider Voice of OC’s more recent coverage of the racial reckoning in regard to the Vietnamese-American community in Santa Ana:

“… the new fiscal year budget finally sets the city on the path toward hiring its first Vietnamese community liaison to serve an estimated 25,000 Vietnamese American residents,” the outlet reported on June 7, apparently unaware of the bias it displays by using the word “finally” in that sentence.

The story went on to report that “Councilmember Thai Viet Phan pushed the liaison idea,” and has “repeatedly demanded City Hall include the initiative in their spending outlook over the last several months, especially amid a nationwide rise in Anti-Asian racism and historically low participation by the community in Santa Ana’s civic affairs.”

Here’s another way to look at life in Santa Ana: A crime ring of Vietnamese-Americans that gets protection for an illegal business through a bribe of a local police officer is, in fact, involved at the very core of civic affairs.

* * *

It’s only fair, however, to note that we’re not talking about Asian criminals—they’re criminals who happen to be Asian.

And they don’t represent the Vietnamese-American community in Orange County—they’re outliers as well as outlaws.

That’s the imperfect, incomplete and honest first draft of this particular page of history.

There’s room for more of the same from other journalists and perspectives—and reason to leave the revising to historians.

Jerry Sullivan is chief columnist of SullivanSaysSoCal.com.

You can follow him @SullivanSaysSC

Photo credit: Ken Lund via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.

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of the press "coverage" is believable.