Officials, Cambodian residents discuss tensions in Olney

Deputy Police Commissioner Stephen Johnson addresses members of Olney's Cambodian community during a meeting in the neighborhood.
Deputy Police Commissioner Stephen Johnson addresses members of Olney's Cambodian community during a meeting in the neighborhood. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 27, 2012

Throwing a spotlight on rising tension between Philadelphia police and Cambodian residents of Olney - who released a report Wednesday that accused some officers of harassment - community activists and representatives of federal, state and local agencies met shoeless on the woven prayer mats of a Buddhist temple in an effort to replace rancor with reconciliation.

Wednesday night's standing-room-only meeting drew about 150 people - among them representatives of the U.S. Department of Justice, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, the mayor, the district attorney, and the governor, as well as a ranking deputy police commissioner - to the temple on Rising Sun Avenue.

It was in response to a July 15 incident in which a patrol officer shot and killed Vanna "Tiny" Sok, 25, who, police said, refused an order to drop his weapon and instead leveled it at the officer.

The One Love Movement, a volunteer advocacy group for Cambodians in Philadelphia, presented a report citing 30 instances in days following the shooting in which it says police used "crybaby gestures" to mock neighbors' mourning for Sok, and flashed their middle fingers at people assembled on the street near his makeshift memorial and told them to disperse or they would get "a free ticket to the hospital."

If they failed to move on, the report said, they were threatened with Tasers. The complainants said police automatically suspect them of participating in gangs.

"Who can we turn to," asked One Love organizer Sokhom Touch, "when the same people who swore an oath to protect us are the ones harassing us?"

Deputy Police Commissioner Stephen Johnson said he would need the names of all complainants and would investigate thoroughly.

"No one should be harassed regardless of their color or ethnicity," said Johnson, who made available complaint forms in the Cambodian language. "We take this very seriously. If we sustain these findings, an officer can be fired or skipped over for promotion. . . . You are not going to get lip service from us."

As efforts at defusing crises go, participants said, the meeting was remarkably open-minded.

"This is by far the most outstanding meeting I have ever seen, under very difficult circumstances," said State Rep. Mark Cohen. "I think that is a good sign for the resolution of these problems."

Early July 15, police on routine patrol near Second Street and Nedro Avenue came upon a gun battle between a man on foot, later identified as Sok, and the driver of a red SUV. The driver peeled off, tires squealing. The rear windshield was blown out.

Police say they then demanded that Sok drop his weapon. They say he pointed the gun at an officer, who took him down with a shot to the head.

Witnesses said Sok, whose parents came to the United States as refugees, lay in the street bleeding for eight minutes awaiting an ambulance that never came. Instead, they said, officers heaved him into a police van and drove him to Albert Einstein Medical Center, where he died about 12 hours later.

Police tracked the red SUV to an address near Devereaux and Ditman Streets in Wissinoming and arrested a man there. Investigators began exploring the possibility that the shootout was a beef between rival gang members and was related to the Jan. 31 killing of Sophos Siv, 40, who was tied up, beaten, and shot inside his home on Ruscomb Street near Second.

One Love member Joe Hanzsum said Wednesday that theory was not correct.

Family and friends created a makeshift memorial for Sok on the street where he was shot. Mourners passed by at all hours to light incense and pay their respects.

Tensions ramped up after what police officials said were "credible threats" by Cambodian gang members to kill a police officer in retaliation. A message to that effect was broadcast on police radio at 5 p.m. last Thursday.

What followed, according to community members who compiled the 30-incident report, was a week of harassment: Police cruised by the memorial, mocking mourners by rubbing their eyes and pretending to cry. They drove through alleyways, shining their flashlights onto people sitting on porches.

Police officials did not seek to defend the officers at the meeting. They simply listened.

The One Love report calls for monthly meetings with Cambodian community members, federal training for officers on how to best build trust between police and the community, and other recommendations.


Contact Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or mmatza@phillynews.com.

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