Why Did Fresno Police Create an ‘Asian Gang Task Force’ to Solve a Crime With No Clear Connection to Gangs?

13 min
The scene of a mass-casualty homicide in Fresno on Nov. 17. Four men were killed and six others were injured when at least two gunmen fired into the backyard of a home where around 30 people had been gathered to watch a football game, police say. (Alexandra Hall/KQED)

The Fresno Police Department’s response to the Nov. 17 shooting deaths of four people has caused confusion and alarm among Asian Americans from beyond the Central Valley city.

Details of the deadly shooting are still unclear. Police have said at least two gunmen entered the side gate of a home in southeast Fresno where family and friends were gathered to watch Sunday night football. Ten people were shot in the backyard of the home. Police are still searching for the suspects.

Four people, all Hmong, were killed: Xy Lee, 23, of Fresno, a famous singer in the Hmong community; Phia Vang, 31, of Fresno; Kou Xiong, 38, who lived at the house where the shooting took place; and Kalaxang Thao, 40, of Fresno.

The new police chief’s response the next morning, to establish an “Asian gang task force,” touched a nerve in the city with a historically large Hmong population, largely formed by refugees from Southern China, Vietnam and Laos.

The establishment of the task force, and its name in particular, have drawn criticism from the Hmong community in Fresno and beyond. Some have said they applaud the dedication of more police officers, but think the name of the task force draws unsubstantiated parallels between the shooting and organized crime, reviving unfair stereotypes about the city’s Southeast Asian residents.

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That larger police presence was visible in the neighborhood of the shooting the next night. Sgt. Adrian Alvarez, with the Fresno Police Department’s Southeast Special Response Team, drove up and down the dark streets. Other officers stood across the street from the home, where a small vigil had been set up for the victims. The goal, Alvarez said, was to be seen -- maintain a presence.

On any other night, Alvarez would be doing much the same thing. But now, his focus wasn’t just any violent crime. He had been given a new task: Asian gangs.

“My team was not focused on Asian gangs before,” Alvarez said, as he paused to listen to dispatch playing in the cab of his police vehicle.

“We don’t know, as of now, whether this was gang-related or motivated. We don’t,” Alvarez said. “We do know that we’ve had other gang-related and motivated shootings recently, that we do have evidence to believe were involving Asian gang members. This being an Asian family that was targeted, we’re trying to piece those pieces together.”

Sgt. Adrian Alvarez heads the Fresno Police Department's Southeast Special Response Team, one of the units assigned to the newly formed 'Asian gang task force.' (Alexandra Hall/KQED)

The direction to switch gears came earlier that day -- the morning after the shooting -- at a press conference led by Fresno Police Chief Andy Hall. He told reporters that the investigation of the shooting would be twofold, beginning with the creation of a new “Asian gang task force.”

Police had no indication that anyone in the house at the time of the shooting had ties to gangs, Hall said. But, he said violence driven by Asian gangs had flared up in the city in recent weeks. Hall said there were three violent incidents involving Asian gangs in the month of November, and 11 in the past year. Of the prior incidents, Hall described a homicide earlier on the morning of the mass shooting, and another shooting that resulted in injuries only the week before. Police would not release further information on these incidents.

But police officials confirmed the task force was formed to solve the crime of the mass shooting and prevent future violence.

“We haven’t seen a spike in Asian gang violence in a while,” Hall said. “And we’re starting to see it now as we head into the Hmong New Year celebration.”

As he spoke, Hall was surrounded by other law enforcement and community leaders, including Pao Yang, CEO of the Fresno Center, a nonprofit in southeast Fresno.

“These are people that are near and dear to us,” Yang said. “I don’t see any gang affiliation with these folks.”

Moua Vang, program director for KBIF 900 AM, a radio station that serves Fresno’s Hmong and Punjabi communities, said he received calls from listeners who were upset when they heard of the task force.

“Everybody is shocked, everybody is hurting,” Vang said. “We don’t believe that it’s gang-related.”

Quyen Dinh, executive director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, a national civil rights organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., said her staff received messages via social media from people around the country who were disappointed by the Police Department’s response.

“A lot of folks felt like they’re hurt that this was the assumption that these community members were a part of gangs or that this was the route to go,” Dinh said.

“There has been some negative feedback from the community,” said former Fresno City Councilman Blong Xiong. “The naming of that task force, especially for our community, personalized some of the things that we fought so hard not to be associated with.”

Xiong said the members of the Southeast Asian community in Fresno worked hard to overcome stereotypes related to gang violence in the '80s and '90s.

“It took us and community members having conversations with our elected officials, with our Police Department, with our media, to help educate them, in terms of our feelings and how it should be reported to make sure it reflects a more balanced and equitable perception for our Southeast Asian community,” Xiong said.

Violent crime in southeast Fresno is down 18% compared to the same time last year, according to the Fresno Police Department.

“When you talk about crime, there’s perception of crime and there’s reality of crime. In the '80s and '90s those two were aligned,” said Fresno’s former police chief Jerry Dyer, who is now running for mayor.

“Since the '80s and '90s there has been a significant reduction of crime. There may be a perception that it's a high-crime area but the reality is that it's not,” Dyer said.

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