From refugee to WPD deputy chief

TIMOTHY VU, deputy chief of police in Westminster (Behind the Badge photo).

TIMOTHY VU, deputy chief of police in Westminster (Behind the Badge photo).

By Jaimee Lynn Fletcher

Stable and steadfast.

Finding calm in the proverbial storm is important to Westminster Police Department’s Tim Vu.

When his family fled a war-torn country, they encountered literal rough seas and the metaphorical kind as they laid down roots in Westminster.

wpdIn his years as a detective, Vu stayed resolute in even the most convoluted cases, confident methodical police work ultimately would lead to an arrest. And often it did.

Now, as the Westminster Police Department’s new deputy chief, Vu, 45, hopes to cultivate a sense of solidity for a department swept up in the anxiety of financial uncertainty and a looming change in leadership.

He will be sworn in Wednesday (Nov. 2) at a ceremony at the Rose Center Theater making him the first Vietnamese-American in Southern California to earn the rank.

While Vu notes the cultural and historical significance of pinning stars to his collar, he is careful not to let it overshadow his hopes for the department.

“If people see me as a role model for the Vietnamese community, I think that’s great, but my job is really to be a positive role model for all the kids in the community, and that is true for all police officers,” Vu said. “For me, I want to be a source of stability and support for the department.

“With uncertainty comes an opportunity to reflect on how we’re doing and if there’s something we can make better, we will.”

Refugee to the PD 

Vu’s life in Vietnam is a collection of hazy snapshots he can’t quite distinguish between true memories or stories as told by his siblings.

He arrived to the U.S. in 1975 as a refugee after his family escaped the communist regime in Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon.

The fled on his father’s fishing boat and braved rough waters for several weeks before being picked up by a passing US Navy ship.  At the time, the US Navy had four ships patrolling the waters to pick up refugees.

Vu and his family were taken to Guam where they stayed in a refugee camp for three months before being sent to Wake Island refugee camp for another four months.

The Vus finally ended up at Camp Pendleton, where they stayed four months.

Vu has memories of sleeping in tents with his parents and siblings and waiting for someone to sponsor them, which, at the time, was the only way out.

Vus three older siblings were taken from the camp by a retired couple, but they could not accommodate the rest of the family. A Catholic Church in Oceanside finally sponsored Vu and the rest of his family.

“We really survived the first year because of the kindness of that family and the kindness of the church,” Vu said.

For the next nearly four years Vu’s family moved around Southern California before settling in the Westminster area.

Vu, one of 11 siblings, started working at age 12.

His first job was soliciting subscriptions and delivering papers for the Orange County Register, waking before the sun rose every Sunday morning.

He also worked in his sister’s video store, in a family-owned liquor store and in a series of other odd jobs in his teen years.

“We grew up very modest,” Vu said. “If you wanted anything, you had to go out and work for it. I didn’t know any different.”

Vu had plans to earn a degree in biology and become a chiropractor, but a summer job working as a police aide for Garden Grove PD shifted his focus.

While working in West Court for the Court Liaison, Vu would see investigators for the District Attorney’s office walking the halls wearing suits and guns on their hips.

Vu was intrigued.

The investigators told the teen the only way to make it to where they are was to become an officer and gain a lot of experience.

So Vu did, although his path wouldn’t lead him to the courthouse hallways.

Steady leader

Vu first joined the San Diego PD in 1993, but after a year of commuting to Westminster every weekend to visit family, he wanted to be closer to home.

(He also was dating the woman he would later marry, Lien. The two have been married for 17 years and have two daughters, Trinity and Tyler.)

A recruiter from Westminster PD reached out to Vu to encourage him to join the department.

“It was kind of a fluke that our recruiting officer got my name and just cold-called me and asked me to lateral,” he said.”I enjoyed my time in San Diego, it’s a beautiful city and a great department, but my family is here.”

In his years with Westminster PD, he worked patrol, fraud and forgery, robbery/homicide and special investigations before promoting to sergeant.

As a detective, he was drawn to the complex cases.

He liked to chase after the bad guy, and if the chase was long and convoluted, Vu was game.

Vu recalled the 2005 murder of a fortune teller and her daughter that at first threw investigators for a loop.

The murder scene looked straight out of a television legal crime drama — an altar with Asian deities set aglow in a eerie red light from wax candles burning slow.

White paint was poured over the victims and human remains were scattered on the ground.

Is this a serial killer? Was it a ritualistic murder? Is there some kind of active cult in Westminster? 

The detectives worked the case for weeks until they found their suspects: a woman upset with a negative fortune reading she received and a man she convinced to join her in killing the fortune teller. (The bones ended up being remains of the fortune teller’s nephew who died in Vietnam and she had not yet buried him.)

“There were a lot of twists and turns and it was a great case to work just because of all the different avenues we came across,” Vu said. “We were fortunate enough to make those arrests and close that case down. It was good for the family to have some closure.”

Then there was the case that felt straight out of a Scorsese film: Wire taps, chasing leads to Mexico, a burned body, crashing a wedding of a known Asian gangster and chasing down drug traffickers to find the man responsible for killing a woman with ties to organized crime.

Nobody would turn on the violent Asian gang member, but Vu and the team of investigators from Garden Grove, Fountain Valley, the FBI and Santa Ana kept pushing. Eventually, a DUI stop was the demise of the violent Asian kingpin.

But they got their guy, and many others who had a violent history of committing crime in Orange County, Vu said.

“That case really afforded me the opportunity to build relationships with other investigators in other local and federal agencies,” Vu said. “Cases like those made the job exciting.”

In 2006, he was promoted to sergeant and in 2010 he made commander.

During his years in a leadership position, Vu has supervised or managed nearly every division of the police department including patrol, investigations and the professional standards unit.

“That’s allowed me to see how business works from all aspects of the department,” he said. “But the more I’ve worked, the more I’ve realized the people around me have more to do with my success than I do.

“I’ve just been the beneficiary of having worked with great people and a lot of good mentors throughout my career.”

He has a long list of other accomplishments that likely helped him earned his deputy chief spot.

Vu holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Cal State Fullerton and a master’s degree in business (MBA) from the University of Redlands.

He is a 2012 graduate of the prestigious FBI National Academy and also received management training from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Accolades and accomplishments aside, Vu is humble. He talks in an even tone, often with a smile, and said no matter whom he deals with, his goal is to stay professional and candid.

“I think people appreciate that,” he said. “I think people appreciate knowing where they stand.”

In a department that is searching for their next permanent police chief while the city is facing uncertain financial times as voters take up a tax measure Nov. 2 that could mean the difference between major departmental cuts or keeping services steady, Vu said he believes straight talk will be valued even more.

(Measure SS would apply a 1 percent sales tax increase in the city to help offset a multi-million dollar budget deficit expected to double next year. City officials have said if the measure fails, the city could be facing bankruptcy as early as 2018.)

“It’s not a secret that we have financial challenges, staffing challenges and our folks are doing more work than ever before with less resources,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of changes in the last few years and we’re in a transition period now. My goal, more than anything, is stability for our people here.”

This article is provided to the Tribune by special arrangement with Behind the Badge, a website devoted to coverage of law enforcement issues, events and practices. For more, go to behindthebadgeoc.com .

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