For La Palma, OC’s 1st Korean American police captain is a perfect fit

November 17, 2014
Capt. Terry Kim in his office at La Palma Police Department (The Korea Times)

Capt. Terry Kim in his office at La Palma Police Department (The Korea Times)

(Courtesy of La Palma Police Department)

(Courtesy of La Palma Police Department)

By Brian Han

Terry Kim is the first Korean American police officer to serve the La Palma Police Department and on Aug. 31 he became the first ever Korean American police captain in all of Orange County, Calif.

After 20 years on the force, he was deemed as the most fit to fill the shoes of his mentor and former superior Capt. Jim Enright.

“We go way back,” Kim, 43, said. “I followed in his footsteps and it’s led me to where I am today.”

Although Kim admits to using Enright’s career path as guidance, an ever evolving La Palma demographic that is now 46 percent Asian American — and 26 percent Korean — may have made him a quite fitting candidate.

Kim’s Korean name is Yoon-han.

Between police officers and civilians, there always exists a bit of tension and maybe even fear out of respect, but having someone who is in tune with the locals may be exactly what the community needs.

“We’re people too,” Kim explains. “There are times when we need to be mechanic, be tough and not show emotion, but underneath all this, we’re people too, so we try to engage the people we protect through community events.”

One example of these events comes in the form of civilian police academies where police officers openly field questions and perform demonstrations to illustrate to the public exactly why they take a specific course of action given the type of situation.

The primary benefit being that police officers are given the chance to empathize with civilians and vice versa.

“These gatherings help us to minimize that negative image that some folks have on law enforcement,” Kim said. “That’s a very important part of what we do.”

With the smallest population in Orange County at 16,000 residents, it becomes clear that a close relationship with the authorities can result in citywide benefits.

“I can tell you right now that there are zero gangs that are based out of our city,” Kim said. “That being said, you’re always going to have some level of gang activity from surrounding cities. The nature of La Palma is that if you stand out in some way or look suspicious, the community can sense that and because our officers are highly capable, the situation is taken care of efficiently.”

(Korea Times)

(Korea Times)

Unfortunately, a tight knit community and a prepared fleet of officers does not make a city immune to crime.

“Some cases stick with your whole career,” Kim said. “Two gang members from LA county got off the freeway around 1 a.m. and robbed a local liquor store. The deal went sideways, the suspects fired their weapons and the owner was shot and killed.”

During this time in Kim’s career, he had been working night shifts often and as it turned out, the owner of the store was more than just an acquaintance.

“I knew the store owner personally and I would stop by and check up on him every so often,” Kim said.

Despite the emotional difficulties that may arise in a case like this, an officer’s duty is to stay calm and follow protocol.

“My partner and I were the first on the scene.” Kim explained. “I pulled up to the getaway car. Then I held the suspect at gunpoint and arrested him. Long story short, the SWAT team came out and took the other suspect into custody.”

Occasionally there are cases that extend outside the city limits that require cooperation from fellow police departments and even volunteering civilians. Kim and his colleagues were critical components in solving such a case while he was a detective sergeant.

Capt. Terry Kim with long time friend and colleague Detective Sergeant Raul Morales (Korea Times)

Capt. Terry Kim with long time friend and colleague Detective Sergeant Raul Morales (Korea Times)

“A La Palma man in his early 20′s had killed his uncle in his uncle’s apartment, took the body to Santa Barbara, dumped the body and then set it on fire,” Kim said. “So Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office started investigating, but evidence at the scene showed that the victim was killed somewhere else.”

After the body was identified, it became a matter that crossed jurisdictions.

“We took over the investigation, went to the victim’s apartment and were able to identify who the suspect was and took him into custody in a matter of a week,” Kim said. “Here we are, a small agency with me as a supervisor with two detectives and one civilian personnel handling an investigation of a larger magnitude. It was pretty remarkable.”

Besides these two examples, which are more statistical anomalies than anything else, La Palma boasts one of the lowest crime rates and fastest police response times in the nation — figures that have contributed towards the city becoming 31st on CNN Money Magazine’s “Best Places to Live” among small cities in the United States.

Thanks to the efforts of hardworking yet caring public servants like Capt. Terry Kim and his staff, the city of La Palma can rest assured that it is in safe hands.

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