Mark Yokoyama became Alhambra’s first Asian police chief in June. Last week he had to perform the services no chief wants to do: speak at the funeral of one of his officers lost in the line of service. Officer Ryan Stringer was killed while on duty on July 10. Before this week’s tragic incidents Yokoyama spoke with Alhambra Source about why he decided to make the move from Cypress to Alhambra, barriers he faced as a young Asian-American officer, and goals for moving forward with the Alhambra Police force.
What made you decide to become a police officer?
I grew up in a pretty rough part of LA — in the Rampart area, right near the old Rampart police department. I’d see drive-by shootings, I’d see stabbings. I had a chance to see the police a lot. Fortunately I stayed on the good side of the law. The way the police treated me, interacted with me, plus my general interest in what they were doing — it just came together. Since high school I knew that it was what I wanted to do.
Asians are underrepresented generally in the policing profession. As someone of Japanese heritage, how did your family react?
In my family it was never frowned upon, but it wasn’t encouraged either. My parents knew early on that was an interest of mine. I think all in all, they saw it as a noble profession. So although they didn’t outwardly encourage it, I saw it as supported.
Did you ever face prejudice in the police force?
I did face some barriers. Back in the early mid 80s when I was going through the police academy there was an almost stereotypical role that I was given: they saw my role was community relations – not out making arrests and being involved in enforcement activities. They’d said I was quiet. I don’t know if it’s true for all Asian cultures, but for many there is some quiet nature to them. That was taken as I wasn’t going to be able to be confrontational, have command presence, be able to control a situation. That wasn’t the case. I am quiet by nature, but if I need to take control of a situation I’m going to do it.
Has the situation changed for Asian officers?
It’s gotten a lot better. The academies of 25 years ago you may not have any Asian officers. I teach in two police academies, and now you’ll see two or three out of 30 or 40. Still, there’s a long way to go. In Cypress the community was probably 35 percent Asian, yet we only had one or two Asian officers.
What made you decide to make the move to Alhambra?
I’d been the chief in Cypress for three years, which in some sense wasn’t a long time. But when I became chief I knew certain things I wanted to focus on at the organization, and I had such a great staff, that what should have been five to seven years we accomplished in three. I also had a captain that was ready to be a chief. The opportunity to go to a city bordering the one I grew up in, coming to a community that I was relatively familiar with in the general sense, being familiar with the diversity and the culture of this community: The timing was right.
A female chief replaced you in Cypress. Is that common?
Not very, but it’s becoming much more common. This year there’s been five or six promoted in California. It’s something I’m proud of. I think part of it’s because I value diversity; I see a great benefit to having females in law enforcement. Seeing what she had to offer, and giving her an opportunity by bringing her in I would say is one of the highlights of my career.
What else are you proud of that you accomplished in Cypress?
One would be the development of the people to take over for me — succession planning. Another was bringing in technology: Video cameras in police facility, upgraded police range and brought that up to industry standards, laptop computers in the police car. And regionalization: we had a combined dispatch center that served three different agencies. We’d share things like mobile command post regionally and could work together if there was a large-scale incident. And then there is building community relationships, and internal relationships with City Hall.
You have two masters, one in Behavioral Science from Cal State Dominguez Hills and a second in Executive Leadership from the University of Southern California. How come?
I enjoy school; I enjoy education. One would think that if you have your masters you go on to a PhD. But it had been 10 years since I went to school and got my first masters. And USC had started a new program, executive masters in leadership. That’s what I needed.
You live in Fullerton. Are you planning on moving to Alhambra?
I’d love to live in the community where I work; it gives me a better sense of what’s going on. The one time I did that, I lived in Newark, and it gave me a good quick understanding of the community’s needs. Of course, you were always working and that’s another challenge, and sometimes it was unfair to my family. But the real reason is my kids are so entrenched in their school right now.
What is your vision for the Alhambra Police Department?
Before I tell the staff, “here’s my vision,” I want to hear from the organization, and I’m meeting with all the personnel to find all the issues and to hear where they want to go and move as far as an organization. What I’ve been telling them is this is what my goals are for us on a very simple level as an organization: progressive, contemporary and sophisticated in everything that we do so that other police departments in LA County can say Alhambra has a great reputation.
Interview has been edited and condensed.