2008.041.001 Oral History Interview with Agnes Chan
In 1980, Agnes Chan graduated at the top of her Police Academy class and became the NYPD’s first Asian female officer. In this position, she sought to build bridges between the Asian community and the police department. Promoted to Detective rank in 1984, Chang served 20 years in the NYPD, including Chinatown’s 5th precinct. She retired in 2000. Chan initially went to John Jay College with the vision of going to law school but after an internship in Chinatown, she decided to join the police department, which at the time was looking to recruit more minority and Asian officers to work with the community. Despite numerous pressures to quit during training at the police academy, Chan persevered and became the first Asian female police officer at the New York City Police Department. Having grown up understanding traditional Chinese culture and values, she saw herself as uniquely equipped to work as an officer in the community. While other officers might interpret avoiding eye contact as a likely sign of deceit, Chan understood that in an Asian cultural context could simply signify fear or respect. While stationed in Spanish Harlem, Chan frequently perceived that people would look at her as a 5’2” Asian female officer and question what Chan could do for them. However, Chan responds that not all situations can be resolved by physical strength and the use of a weapon and require talking to people and having conversations. She asserts that most police officers are service-oriented and that the majority of them are there to help people and the community, often at their worst moment.


I remember when I was a young kid coming to work in the factory with my mother and I would come to Chinatown and there would be gang kids lined up along the street, and I think a lot of my friends or people I know would be afraid actually sometimes to walk down Chinatown.

Actually I never thought about becoming a police officer. I was actually looking to go to law school when I went to John Jay, and while I was there, there was an internship that got me involved in working with the community in Chinatown. So I pursued that and I got involved in their recruitment drive for the police department. There was a big push to recruit for more minorities and Asians because there has been a lack of Asian officers dealing with the community, as far as language barriers, the cultural difference, the traditional values that we have. So I thought that we would be able to help the police department in that sense, by becoming one of them.

When I went into training in the academy, there were a lot of doubts about whether I was going to be able to complete our training. A lot of people used to say, "Just give up now, don't bother, or you should be home, cooking, cleaning." I would tell them that this is a different era now. Actually on the day that I got sworn in, that's when I found out that I was the first Asian female police officer for the New York City Police Department. When I got sworn in and the newspaper came out the following day, I had a couple phone calls from some people who called me, who was already on the police department who told me that I did something very wrong, by putting myself on the newspaper because now I missed out on a lot of undercover assignment that they were getting ready for me to do. But which I was glad, in a way, because I think I would have preferred to be more visible in uniform than to do undercover work.

I remember when I was growing up, my parents would tell me, be afraid of the police officer, stay away from them, avoid them at all costs. And I think the Chinese community avoided the police because of that thinking. The older generation, they talk to the police, they don't make eye contact and by just that one gesture by itself, they're looked upon as either lying, being deceitful and not willing to help. But where I grew up I knew that avoiding someone's eye contact sometime means they're just respecting you. They're just afraid sometimes so it's not the same. Armed with that, I was able to work better with the community actually.

Being a police officer in the New York City police department as a Asian female has its advantages and disadvantage. I remember when I was working up in Spanish Harlem, people would come up because they looked at me as a 5'2, Asian female and they would say to themselves, "What can you do for me?" There's a phrase in the police department where they say verbal judo. And that's you try to have conversation you try to talk, because you can't always try to resolve a situation by physical strength, or by using your weapon.

I think that 80% of the police officers are service oriented. That means we actually help the community, help the people, you know, you're there at the worst moment. Someone had a car accident, someone got hurt, they have a heart attack, their family. You're playing a role that's important to them. Not just chasing down bad guys, you're there because they need you.

I'm Agnes Chan, I'm the NYPD's first Asian female police officer.

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