• Asians account for about 4% of NYPD detectives, and 8% of sergeants
  • NYPD has about 550 Asian American sergeants and above in rank
  • As of 2019, of the LAPD 10,008 officers, 766 were Asian and 246 were Filipino American

Defying stereotypes, Asian Americans have made great strides in urban U.S. police departments across the country in recent years.

The largest police force in the nation, the New York Police Department, or NYPD, now has at least 3,000 officers of Asian descent, representing about 8.5% of all uniformed members of the force.

(That percentage is still well below the Asian portion of the city’s population, which is about 14%).

On the whole, Asians account for about 4% of NYPD detectives, and 8% of sergeants. But Asian Americans can boast only one chief, one deputy chief, two inspectors, four deputy inspectors and 36 captains.

Hugh H. Mo, a Chinese American who was born in Shanghai, became the first Asian American to ascend to the rank of NYPD Deputy Commissioner in 1984. At that time, he said, there were less than 20 Asian American officers in the department and not even one sergeant.

Now NYPD has about 550 Asian American sergeants and above in rank.

A group called The Asian American Police Executives Council of the New York Police Department, or AAPEX, was formed late last year to encourage and mentor more Asian police to become leaders in the department.

"I believe it is incumbent for Asian-American police executives to have a strong voice in the NYPD and to advance leadership development and mentoring of junior Asian officers to be future leaders in the Department," said AAPEX President Captain Stewart Hsiao Loo, who is also the Commanding Officer of Detective Borough Manhattan South, Group 2.

“When you don’t see people like you in those [senior] positions, you kind of feel like you don’t belong there,” Loo said.

Mo noted that most Asian Americans who join the police force are first-generation officers – meaning they’re not part of multi-generation culture of policemen and don’t benefit from a strong legacy, like the Irish.

Moreover, Asian Americans are under-represented in the department’s senior ranks. AAPEX seeks to change that.

“We feel the department will only be better by promoting diversity across the board based on merit,” Mo said.

Among the Chinese, where families have traditionally discouraged their children from becoming policemen, this mindset may be changing given the relative stability and benefits of police careers.

NYPD Chief Thomas Chan, the highest-ranking Asian American officer on the force, estimated that almost half of the department’s high-ranking Asian officers are immigrants, and two-thirds of them are Chinese Americans.

“Many of them are the first in their families joining the NYPD,” said Chan. “It is not easy for immigrants growing [up] in traditional culture to get the support from their families to become police officers.”

Chan added: "When people need assistance, it's not a matter of what ethnic background the officer is. But it certainly does help when the officer speaks additional languages."

Lt. Paul Ng concurred. "I can take my background and my empathy and my understanding of Chinese culture and relate to some of the people, or those who might not understand why certain things are done," he said.

NYPD Lt. Lily Fu become a cop against her parents’ wishes.

"They just felt like, 'Go to school, be a teacher and do something Asian girls would normally do," she said. "I guess that really wasn't for me."

Japanese-American Terry Hara joined the Los Angeles Police Department, or LAPD, in 1980 and eventually rose to become its first Asian American deputy chief. At the start of his career, there were only 66 Asian Americans in the 7,300-member force.

As of 2019, of the LAPD 10,008 officers, 766 were Asian and 246 were Filipino American.

In San Francisco, the 2,260-member police department is 16.8% Asian and 6% Filipino – meaning almost one-fourth of the police force are of Asian descent. (As of 2018, San Francisco’s total population was about 34.3% Asian)

In April 2004, Heather Fong became the first woman to become chief of the San Francisco Police Department, or SFPD, as well as the first Asian American woman to lead a major metropolitan city police force in the country. She was also the second Asian American police chief in SFPD history, after Fred Lau, who rose to become chief in 1996.

Fong, who joined SFPD in 1977, retired from the force in April 2009.

Fong kept a low profile during her tenure and once said: "There are times when you have to be the voice of reason or the voice of calm. Those are things I feel I've been doing throughout my career, but not by waving the red flag and saying, 'Hey, look at me. I'm doing this, I'm doing that.' No, you just do it. It's part of your everyday responsibility."

However, the police department promoted her image to recruit more women and Asians into the force.

"She didn't go around saying, 'Here I am, the first [Chinese American] woman to be police officer,' " said Henry Der, former executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action. "But she understood the historical significance of her being a role model from the first day she entered the police force."