Growing up in Edison, Shirley Dong never thought she could be a cop.
The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Dong remembers how distant the police seemed from the growing Asian community. To don a gun and a badge? It seemed impossible for a 5-foot-2, first-generation Chinese-American woman.
“I grew up with my parents telling me, ‘Don’t bother the police. The police don’t speak our language. They don’t understand us,’” Dong recounted a decade later.
But when her father was robbed years ago, it changed her future. For Dong, it took just seeing a reassuring face in the uniform, in the most trying of circumstances.
When Dong was 17, her father was mugged as he made a delivery from the family’s Chinese restaurant. Dong helped translate for the detective who responded, an encounter she says changed her life.
The detective was a woman, Lisa Cimmino, who went out of her way to help. Police caught the robber, though Dong’s father ultimately declined to prosecute.
But Dong had found her calling.
“I really saw myself in her,” Dong said about watching Cimmino respond to the robbery.
“I wanted to be just like her.”
Dong is now a police officer in her hometown, in a state in which Asians are both the fastest growing community and the most under-represented in the ranks of law enforcement. Dong’s journey speaks to the challenges police departments face in attracting Asian officers, and how representation — even a chance encounter with someone you relate to — matters.
Asians make up about 11% of New Jersey’s population, but just 2% of its police force, NJ Advance Media found in an investigation of police diversity, a bigger disparity than any other group.
In Edison, the gap is starker. With a thriving community who trace their families to east and south Asia, Edison is nearly 50% Asian. Yet its police force is only about 6% Asian.
Edison Chief Tom Bryan said that since he took over the department in 2008, he’s been working hard to diversify, but that it takes time.
An officer’s career stretches 25 years or more, and one generation must give way to another, he said.
“A good number of officers that have been here many years, we have to wait for them to retire to change,” Bryan said.
Bryan also said that recruiting Asian officers has sometimes proven a challenge. He recalled hiring an Asian officer whose family was incensed the man became a cop instead of a doctor.
Edison deserves praise for making strides, said Robert May, the founder of the New Jersey Asian American Law Enforcement Officers Association. But across the state, more needs to be done, he said.
“It shouldn’t just be those that have large Asian populations, it should also be those that have small Asian populations,” May said. “Because you want a diverse police department.”
“Asians could bring so much to a police department, and we do,” May said.
According to the data compiled by NJ Advance Media, only 4% towns in the state report no Asian residents, yet 77% of police agencies lack any Asian officers.
That disparity could be having a tangible effect in the state.
Data shows Asian drivers are ticketed by the State Police more often than any other group. Asians get tickets during 56% of routine stops; Hispanics are ticketed 51% of the time; Blacks, 44%; and whites, 40%, according to State Police data from 2009 to 2020 that was released earlier this year.
May, a retired Port Authority officer, said “implicit bias” helps explain those discrepancies. But for Asian officers, the bias isn’t always implicit.
May said he dealt with racism among his colleagues early in his career in the 1980s — a note telling him that “You don’t belong here,” and Chinese food menus with lewd messages left out for him to find.
“It was terrible,” May said. “Coming to work every day, it was terrible.”
May said complaints of anti-Asian harassment do continue to sprout up in some departments, but it is not rampant.
“You’ve got to have a thick skin. If you don’t have a thick skin and someone tries to get a rise out of you, you’re in the wrong business,” May said.
Hate crimes against Asians in the United States have been on the rise recently. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University found that anti-Asian hate crimes reported to police in America’s largest cities jumped nearly 150% in 2020.
Data shows that Asian-Americans are also under-represented in police departments nationally, like they are in New Jersey. San Francisco’s police department is 23% Asian, while its population is about 35% Asian. In 2016, Seattle reported that its police department was 7% Asian, compared with 14% of its population. In New York, Asians comprise 14% of the population, but 8% of the NYPD, according to recent reports.
The lack of representation in police is believed to discourage people from reporting crimes.
“When you don’t have a clear representation of people who have been hired to serve and protect you, there’s a fear of reporting,” Janet Ahn, chief behavioral science officer at Mind Gym, a company that promotes diversity and inclusion, told Axios earlier this year. “Some people think: Are you even going to take my case?”
Dong said her positive experience with Cimmino melted away any hesitations she had. She kept that vision with her as she graduated from high school and volunteered as an auxiliary officer in Edison. She embraced it as she enrolled in Middlesex County College and worked nights as a dispatcher. And as she attended Camden County Police Academy and was hired in Edison after she graduated in 2016.
In Edison, Dong joined that same department where Cimmino is now a sergeant. At first Dong kept her secret from Cimmino, even as they began working alongside each other.
Cimmino recalls just some details of the encounter that so touched Dong. Someone had placed a fake order that drew Dong’s father to an apartment complex where he was robbed. He spoke very little English. She went back to the family’s restaurant, where Dong helped bridge the language gap.
Cimmino doesn’t remember doing anything extraordinary, just trying to make a shaken family comfortable.
“I was just doing my job,” she said.
Though Dong was initially reluctant to tell Cimmino directly how much she was touched, Dong recounted it to others in the police department. One morning, it leaked out in the chitchat of the station.
“You know, Shirley took the job because of you,” another officer told Cimmino.
It was a stunning moment, Cimmino said. You hope to touch the lives of others, but rarely are you presented with proof that you did, she said.
“It is extremely flattering that I actually made an impact in this young woman’s life,” Cimmino said. “To know that I had that impact on her to do all this, words can’t express the flattery I feel.”
Cimmino said that when she was hired in 2004, there were just three women in the department, and she was the only one on the road at the time. Drivers’ heads would turn as they passed her directing traffic, so surprised were they to see a female officer, she said.
Like police departments across the state, the 184-officer force in Edison remains whiter and more male than the community it serves. But the department has been trying to hire more officers of color, and has 12 officers who are Black and 11 who are Asian, according to township records.
Dong, who speaks two dialects of Chinese, said she sees herself as a bridge between police and the community she grew up in. She hopes there are kids in Edison who see her in uniform and, like she did a decade ago, realize they too can be cops.
“You can look a certain way and still be a police officer. We’re all different here,” Dong said.
Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to NJ.com.
Riley Yates may be reached at [email protected].