How a Md. PD's Asian liaison officer is connecting police and the community

Officer Stella Dieu, who grew up in the area, says she ultimately wants everyone to feel safe and supported in the community


By Ana Faguy
Howard County Times, Columbia, Md.

HOWARD COUNTY, Md. — Stella Dieu has been on the job as the Howard County Police Department's Asian community liaison officer for nine months, and it's been anything but normal.

Dieu, who has been with the department for nine years, started the new role during the middle of the coronavirus pandemic and has been navigating from a mostly virtual position, as incidents of anti-Asian rhetoric and violence have increased across the county and the country.

From left, Howard County Police Department s Asian community liaison officer Stella Dieu talks with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and County Executive Calvin Ball during a visit to Ellicott City on March 22.
From left, Howard County Police Department s Asian community liaison officer Stella Dieu talks with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and County Executive Calvin Ball during a visit to Ellicott City on March 22. (Kevin Richardson)

She has spent her time trying to bridge the gap between the police and a community Dieu says is unlikely to involve the police.

"It doesn't really surprise me [that the Asian American and Pacific Islander community is hesitant to reach out to police] because that's what I was used to growing up as well," Dieu said. "I get this idea that people want help, but then they don't want to tell the police about it and so it's how do you help somebody who doesn't ask for help? That's difficult because you know the issue is there, but people aren't coming to you and asking for help."

Asian Americans account for 18% of Howard County's population and nearly 7% of Maryland's population.

Dieu, who grew up in Howard County and attended Atholton High School, said she understands the struggles many Asian Americans face, as she was raised by a first-generation single mother.

"Obviously I'm Asian American and I've always struggled with my culture growing up and seeing the struggles that the Asian community has gone through. And I just felt that I could be the best person to try and advocate for the Asian community, knowing those struggles," she said of her role.

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Dieu said her work can mostly be separated into two categories: individual outreach and group presentations.

"A lot of my work is proactively reaching out to community organizations and to community members and just checking in to see if they need anything," she said. "I think sometimes there can be distrust or a barrier between the police and the community, so just trying to keep that door open for them to know that I'm here if they need anything."

In recent months, Dieu has been sending updates to Asian American and Pacific Islander organizations and groups about COVID-19 vaccination efforts in the county, when certain individuals would be eligible and where they could go to get vaccinated.

"The entire point of [the community outreach division] is to make sure that people's interactions with police aren't only in moments of crisis, aren't only negative situations. We want people to interact and get to know our officers when things are not in crisis," said Sherry Llewellyn, spokesperson for the county police department. "So that's the real goal to foster the relationship when we're not in the midst of something tragic."

Pravin Ponurri, chief volunteer and founder of the Indian Origin Network of Howard County, has met with Dieu multiple times. He said Dieu has broken down the barrier between the police and the Indian community and has helped build a better relationship between the two.

"[Dieu] has done a great job bridging the gap that used to be there a few years ago," Ponurri said. "Empowering and explaining to us the process in a very friendly manner."

The other part of her job is offering presentations about crime prevention, fraud and the current climate surrounding hate bias incidents to the community.

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"The presentations are to try and educate and inform the community so that they know how to better protect themselves and learn about what they can do to protect their homes or their businesses," Dieu said.

According to Dieu, mistrust between the Asian American and Pacific Islander community and the police mainly manifests in members of the community not involving or contacting the police.

"In my position, I've been trying to emphasize: it's OK to call us, it's OK to ask for help," she said. "We don't know any problems or issues if [they] don't talk to us. We can't resolve those issues if they don't tell us."

So far in 2021, Howard County has had seven reports of hate bias incidents involving Asian American victims, according to Llewellyn.

The police department describes a hate bias incident as "any hostile expression, language or behavior that may be motivated by another person's race, color, disability, religion, national origin, sexual orientation or gender identity. [Hate bias incidents] may be offensive or racist but are not illegal."

Separately, the department describes a hate crime as "a criminal act motivated by bias against another person's race, color, disability, religion, national origin, sexual orientation or gender identity that violates the law. Hate crimes may include verbal, physical or visual expressions of hate, but also must have an additional criminal element."

"We've had cases we think maybe wouldn't have been reported in the past ... We had an incident where someone reported that eggs had been thrown at their car and the victim in that incident happened to be Asian American and contacted us and reported it as a possible [hate bias incident] because he wasn't sure whether he was targeted. And we don't know that we would have gotten that report before," Llewellyn said.

Llewellyn said the police department tries to stay on top of tracking the hate bias incident reports, even if there's limited information, so it can monitor trends in the county.

"When I started in this position, we did not get many reports of hate bias incidents involving the [Asian American and Pacific Islander] community. This has been a recent development in the past couple of months," Dieu said.

For the most part, Dieu said, the hate bias incidents in Howard are verbal, involving individuals using racial slurs toward an Asian American or Pacific Islander.

"That doesn't negate the fact that the [Asian American and Pacific Islander] community in Howard County is in fear and they are afraid and they have told me those concerns, so that is still their reality. So what I've been trying to do is just support them and tell them that the police department is here for them," she said. "If there is any situation where they feel that they are being targeted because of their ethnicity, they have to contact us so that we can try and negate that situation."

On the Lunar New Year in February, burglars struck six Howard County businesses, four of them Asian-owned restaurants. Police said investigators have no evidence that the burglars targeted the restaurants because of the owners' races.

Those events were on the minds of many when Dieu joined Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and County Executive Calvin Ball for a visit to Korean Way in Ellicott City in March. They were there to offer support to Asian-owned businesses days after eight people, including six Asian American women, were gunned down at spas in Atlanta, Georgia.

Dieu said the outreach of Hogan and Ball that day helped to raise awareness in the community.

"If we bring attention to the issues, hopefully we can find a resolution for it," she said.

Those kind of resolutions are what Dieu is working on with the 17 other members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander Workgroup that Ball formed in February. The group is working to advise the county on policy initiatives and issues that affect the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, as well as organize events and discussions.

"Ultimately we want everyone to feel safe and supported in the community," she said.

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(c)2021 the Howard County Times (Columbia, Md.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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