Koreans say city police don't give them justice Hearing highlights tension with blacks

July 24, 1998|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Korean-American grocer Chang Joon Cho hardly expected to end up in jail when he called police to report a thieving teen-ager in his Sandtown shop two summers ago.

But Cho and his family believe that because the elderly man did not speak fluent English, Baltimore police failed to interview him. When the accused teen-ager, who is African-American, told police Cho had pointed a rifle at him, Cho landed behind bars for three days.

"It was just because he couldn't speak English -- if I had been there, I know this wouldn't have happened to him," Hyo Jin Cho, the grocer's daughter, said yesterday at a hearing before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission's Maryland Advisory Committee.

"There is a big problem in the justice system in the city," she said. "The police are not listening to Koreans who call them."

Hyo Jin said she and her family never filed a police report because they had little confidence anything would come of it -- a sentiment echoed by other Korean grocers in the daylong hearing set up to determine whether Korean shop owners receive adequate legal protection. Implicit in the testimony was that long-standing tension between Koreans and blacks lingers in many city neighborhoods.

More than a dozen grocers, city officials and residents who testified revealed much frustration and anger, saying members of the different ethnic groups often don't know -- or care to know -- one another and officials often are indifferent.

But signs of progress, however meager, also bubbled up.

"Korean-Americans and African-Americans all are minorities," Soshik Seo of the Korean American Business League said through an interpreter. "If we unite, there is a prospect for a

future from which we can all benefit."

Although they could not comment on the specifics of the Cho case, city officials from the fire and police departments and the Community Relations Commission testified that they have seen no evidence that Korean-American grocers are suffering a lack of protection from their agencies.

"I would not dare minimize the concerns of the Korean-American community," said Alvin O. Gillard, director of the city's Community Relations Commission, which earlier this year arranged two community discussions between the groups.

"But based on my information I believe Korean-Americans are being afforded adequate protection," he said.

He added that, with his office getting barely 20 complaints a year regarding black-Korean tension -- most from African-Americans claiming disrespect and inadequate service -- he does not perceive the issue as alarming.

Yesterday's hearing came in response to persistent tension between blacks and Koreans in many city neighborhoods, tension that caught the attention of the Civil Rights Commission after the robbery-related deaths last year of two Korean grocers.

But those were the only two killings of Korean-Americans all year -- compared with more than 300 in the city as a whole, said Namhyun C. Kim, the Police Department's liaison to the Korean community. Kim, one of three city officers who speaks Korean, said crime against Koreans is "not high."

Col. Robert F. Smith, head of the police field operations bureau, acknowledged his department has not always adequately addressed the language and cultural barriers that surface between blacks and Korean-Americans.

But, he said, all police officers now receive eight hours of diversity training. Officers also routinely meet with Korean community leaders, he said.

"They [Korean-Americans] have as many of my business cards as I have of theirs," Smith said after his testimony in response to Korean complaints that police failed to respond. "They know where to find me."

Several black ministers yesterday contributed to the discussion, saying Asians and blacks are victims of common problems: racism and urban crime.

"Korean business people have suffered terribly from crimes of violence," said Douglas Miles, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. "But much of this, in my opinion, has less to do with their ethnicity than with the fact that almost all of the small [businesses] presently operating in the African-American community -- particularly in high-crime areas of the city -- are Korean-owned and -operated."

Members of the state Advisory Committee, a group of nine ministers, doctors and community activists, said their aim was to gather facts and shed light on the situation. The agency has no enforcement power, but a transcript and report are expected to be made available in coming months, they said.

Although the meeting focused more on sharing information than finding solutions, many were hopeful that continued dialogue would help.

Jackie Cornish, executive director of Druid Heights Community Development Corp., said everyday people must not wait for someone else to tackle the issue. "It is up to the residents, not up to the police all the time and not up to city government," she said. "It's up to me because I live there."

Cornish, who with Korean-American grocer Kap Y. Park has run a city summer camp for Korean and black children for six years, said she sees many signs of hope.

"The one sharp tool we had in all this has been the children," Cornish said.

"They are the ones playing together in the stores, sharing with one another. There is no prejudice. The children have it made -- they know where they're going. You and I have to get it together."

Pub Date: 7/24/98

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