Hawthorne police meet with Tongan community at dinner

From the DailyBreeze


By Sandy Mazza Staff Writer

Hawthorne police officers aren't alone in wanting to put a lid on a recent spate of gang violence at the hands of a local Tongan gang.

Leaders of Los Angeles County's tight-knit Tongan community in Hawthorne, Carson and Lennox also don't want to see police at their doors, arresting their youths.

The two groups shared their concerns and searched for ways to quell brewing troubles during an unusual dinner meeting at Hawthorne Police Department this week.

Community Affairs Sgt. Chris Cognac made chicken-garlic linguine and members of the Tongan Community Services Center brought a fruit drink called `otai.' They ate in a police station conference room on Thursday.

"None of us have known the elders because we don't run into you unless you run a stop sign," Cognac told the group. "I wanted to invite everybody to our house for dinner. You've been an integral part of our community and we haven't really had a bridge."

The idea behind the meeting was that communication between Tongan elders and police officers could be devastating for teenagers and young adults in the community who want to commit crimes. Recently, a surge in fights at Hawthorne High School and some violent crimes around the city have been attributed to members of the Tongan Crips - a small but powerful gang.

"We had some problems historically with the Tongan Crips, and some racial problems between the blacks, Hispanics and Tongans," Cognac said. "It's part of an ongoing problem of some of the kids going wayward, getting into the gang life and causing problems. Fights, violence, robberies, a multitude of felonious acts."

But police have one big thing in their favor - the Tongan community is very close, held together by a few local churches, an avid churchgoing population and large extended families. Tongan youth may feel comfortable causing trouble away from home, but they would likely be extremely embarrassed if their families or church leaders found out, said community organizer Sione Tuita Tuiasoa.

"All it takes is two phone calls. We know where the kids live, and their parents," Tuiasoa said. "Our people listen to the ministers. This is good for us, so we can pinpoint who to talk to in our congregations."

The U.S. census reports about 650 Tongans living in Los Angeles County, but Tongan officials believe the number is in the thousands. Most live in the area of Hawthorne and Lennox.

The Kingdom of Tonga is a group of islands in the South Pacific Ocean near Fiji. Tongan culture differs from American culture in its communal nature, and a variety of customs that are alien to most Americans - including kava drinking and elaborate funeral ceremonies. Tongan parents have struggled to assimilate to the new culture, and their children have floundered in the process, Tongan teens told the group on Thursday.

"I used to be a part of all the trouble, used to get into problems with the cops. I started out ditching, hanging with the wrong people, drinking. My parents weren't aware of it until other parents told them," said recent Hawthorne High School graduate Sisilia Kava. "I used to pull stunts because, being first generation, my parents didn't know nothing. But if they were talking to the police then - trust me, there would be no trouble."

Hawthorne school resource officer Kirk Moiseve said he recently helped prevent a fight between Tongan and Hispanic gangs in a local park. Police got information before the fight and saturated the area.

"The more I can problem-solve without using the court system, the better," Moiseve said. "Usually, Tongan boys are not on the small side, and that can be devastating for the victim. I'd love to be able to mediate problems with someone they respect before fights occur."

Tuiasoa said he looks forward to working with police, though he has not had good past interactions with them.

"I felt Hawthorne police were very prejudiced against Tongans," Tuiasoa said. "The only time we get to see them is when they're busting down doors for the stupidity of our kids. I was dying for something like this, for us to work together."