“They like to carry the 9mm handgun,” Officer Roy moody says. He's talking about Lao and Cambodian gang kids. “And, of course, they do like the semi automatic rifles like AK-47s, even though we haven't seen an AK-47 in a while."
He looks like a big kid, an enlarged, robust four- or five year-old kid ready for some fun. He looks like Bob the Big Boy, in front of Bob's Big Boy coffee shop, with a flattop. He goes out of his may to make you feel he's not as big and dangerous as he really is. He talks with the tone and rhythm of a dog handler talking a strange, ugly dog out of a corner.
“You know, we get threats on police officers. Some definitely wouldn’t hesitate shooting anybody, anybody now. So it’s definitely changed. The things that have happened to these communities didn’t have to happen. In the 1970s, early ’80s, our whole system just wasn’t prepared for that mass influx of refugees. And the police department definitely didn’t know how to deal with them.”
I glance around the framed photos and citations on the office wall and learn Roy Moody’s father is a retired San Diego cop. Roy’s 35. He’s married. “As a matter of fact, I’m married to a Southeast Asian lady.”
He answers every question in even, whole, and complete sentences, in words you know he’s deliberated over before letting me hear them. He also weighs me, in a glance, and measures me, and gives me a complete physical, frisks me for weapons, and knows more about me than I know about him.
On his desk, among Polaroids of guns confiscated from gang kids, is a nasty little Mac 11. From the back end of the receiver to the end of the muzzle, it’s only 11 inches long.
“Basically, with Southeast Asian gangs, I started in 1989. I was working a beat that had a very large Lao population. So through a period of 1989 to approximately 1992, patrol. And then over here as Indochinese community relations officer.
“Cambodian gangs tend to copy the Hispanics in dress and tattoos. The Lao gangs are a little bit more upscale. They like to get dressed up a little bit more. They’ve been known to wear jacket and tie.
“When I first started working with Southeast Asian gang members, I’d pull them over. I was very polite. They said yes, sir; no, sir — did exactly what you wanted ’em to do, and you go away feeling, ‘What a nice kid!’ But this guy could have been the worst kid in the world. And so they play that game.
“You know, they try to come across, especially to policemen, as, ‘Well, I stay at home. I’m a hard-working student,’ when in fact he hasn’t been in school in two years. A lot of times you can’t identify them by their dress. You’ve got to know this person is a gang member by being out there all the time.
“Most people don’t know the difference between an immigrant and a refugee. An immigrant was mentally prepared to come to this country, where a refugee didn’t have any choice. And a lot of these refugees that came didn’t think that they would be making the United States a permanent home. They were always thinking they were going to go back. But the reality is, there’s not much to go back to now. So most of them are here for good.
“Basically, Southeast Asian gangs were first documented in the early ’80s, but the violence didn’t really get started until about 1989, between Lao and Cambodian gang members. The shootings started in the beach area. Shootings attract attention.
“Maybe I should go back to the very beginning. What happened was, when they first came over here, they were put in lower economic neighborhoods where there were already established gangs. African-American and Hispanic gangs. And so as they’re going to school, because they were different, they were constantly being teased and picked on. And so they came together. And they found that by coming together that they were stronger. And then they started fighting.”
Who did they fight?
“Pretty much everybody. When they were at school, you know, they were Asian, they identified with each other. There wasn’t a lot of problems amongst themselves. And so they started coming together to protect themselves.
“They went to Crawford, Horace Mann, Gompers, Lincoln, Kearny High School, Linda Vista. We’re talking about three main areas in the early ’80s. And recently we’re talking about a fourth area. In the early ’80s we’re talking City Heights, Southeast Division in San Diego, and Linda Vista. And then lately, Mira Mesa has been getting a lot of Asian gang activity.
“When they came together, they found that they were stronger, to protect themselves. But one of the things that occurred then was, they’d say, ‘Well, let’s go look for So-and-So, because he used to pick on us.’ And so they’d go out after school or on the weekend. And a lot of these guys [they’re looking for] were gang members, and all of a sudden they’re starting to get shot at. And [the Asian kids are] thinking, ‘Oh, man! We’d better get guns to protect ourselves.’ And so there was a slow progression.
“School officials did what they could. Police did what they could. But actually, because of a very serious lack of communications and resources, they were pretty much just left alone.
“And back in 1989 what happened was, between Cambodian and Lao gang members, they were at the beach. They were partying like they did every week. And some Cambodian gang members came down from Long Beach. They were friends with the Cambodians that were there. And evidently they tried to pick up one of the Lao’s girlfriends. There was a fight, and before you know it, they were shooting at each other, which ended up as a double homicide in the Sports Arena area. And then there were several homicides after that.