Six-year-old Victor Lee smiled as he ran his fingertips along the smooth hat of his father's police uniform. At 41 years old, Won Lee was sworn in as a Howard County police officer, a career he has been dreaming of since he was his son's age.
Lee emigrated from Korea to Baltimore County at age 10. He graduated from Perry Hall High School and received a political science degree from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 1993.
He hoped to pursue a career in law enforcement, but his parents didn't approve. So Lee embarked on a series of odd jobs and then followed in his parents' footsteps, opening a small takeout business in Baltimore.
Fifteen years after college graduation, Lee walked across the auditorium stage of Marriotts Ridge High School, receiving his badge at Thursday evening's graduation of Police Academy Class No. 32. The class of 15 Howard County officers, and one from Havre de Grace, was the first to begin and end its training at the new James N. Robey Police & Fire Training Facility in Marriottsville.
Lee had been waiting for this night longer than many of his colleagues have been alive. He acknowledged that it has not been an easy road.
"The overall academy was very challenging and tough, but I think it's all worthwhile," he said. "There's physical training just about every day, a lot of real-life practicals that we go through." After being accepted into the academy, 20 recruits began 28 weeks of physical and mental tests - fitness exams, classroom learning, driving skills and firearms training. For Lee, it meant a one-hour commute to Howard County every day from Shrewsbury, Pa., where he lives with his wife, Hee Jung Lee, and children, Victor, 6, and Veronica, 4.
As he stood in the hallway outside the auditorium, jazz music seeping in from the awaiting stage, Lee was dressed as his fellow officers: blue jacket, black pants with a blue stripe down the side and a red, white and blue police badge emblazoned on the sleeve.
But Lee feels he bears an additional responsibility - to help bridge the gap between the county's Korean population and the police.
"I think the community's been looking for an officer who can represent the department, be their liaison," he said. "If they have problems, they can come to me and I can relay the message to the department."
PFC Bryce Buell said that Lee, one of very few officers who can speak Korean, is proof of the department's efforts to recruit bilingual officers. Lee and another graduate, Byung Moon, will join a handful of Korean officers in the department.
Meanwhile, Howard County's Korean population has grown significantly. In 2000, the county's Korean population was 6,100, according to the U.S. Census. That figure increased to about 10,000 in 2004, the most recent statistic available.
"We've had that communication gap a lot of times, and this will help to bridge that gap between the communities, and understand that they can communicate with the police and will have a liaison. It's vitally important," Buell said.
The department recruits and offers bonuses to bilingual officers, particularly those with fluency in Korean and Spanish.
In addition, the Police Department's Web site can be viewed in Spanish and Korean, part of the county's efforts to serve its growing minority populations, Buell said.
Lee said he doesn't feel additional pressure, despite being one of the few officers who can communicate with the Korean-speaking population.
"I'm just anxious to get out there," he said. "I want to have a long career here. I'm 41. I'm not here to just try out what it's like. I'm here to stay for a long time and retire from here."
Lee said that his parents now approve of his decision to become an officer and are proud that he held onto his dream for so long. His extended family, which lives in Howard County, said Lee will make an excellent officer.
"I'm so happy for him," said Joan Lee, 19, of her uncle. "He set a great example for his children and all the kids in our family, that he reached his dreams."
William J. McMahon, Howard County's chief of police, recognized Thursday's ceremony as an important milestone for the new officers, the department and the community.
"These officers now have the power to take someone's property, liberty and even life. And it's a trust that's difficult to earn and easy to lose," McMahon said. "But they're ready for it. They wouldn't have gotten those badges if they weren't. I watched 16 men and women fulfill their dreams tonight, and they deserve it."