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Alhambra police use WeChat as bridge to Chinese immigrants

Lauren Zhang, who was visiting a friend in Alhambra, scrolls through her WeChat account.
Lauren Zhang, who was visiting a friend in Alhambra, scrolls through her WeChat account. "All Chinese use it," Zhang said.
Josie Huang/KPCC

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Very few Alhambra police officers know Chinese, but their department is becoming world-renowned for its use of Chinese social media. 

The Alhambra Police Department recently opened an account on WeChat, China's biggest mobile messaging service, with about 500 million users.  The move comes a year after police joined Weibo, the popular microblogging site that is a cross between Facebook and Twitter.

The goal is to improve communication with the estimated 30,000 Chinese immigrants in the city who prefer Chinese social media platforms to American ones.

“A lot of them don’t speak English or don't speak English very well but they still are our constituents," said Sgt. Jerry Johnson.

With WeChat, users can text tips in Chinese to police and ask about everything from identity theft to the city’s upcoming Lunar New Year festival.  They receive texts back in Chinese, crafted by volunteers and the few staffers fluent in the language.

"Bridging that language barrier with WeChat can improve communication and help us become a better police department," Johnson said.

Sgt. Jerry Johnson of the Alhambra Police Department

Sgt. Jerry Johnson

Leading the cadre of volunteer translators is Walter Yu, a court interpreter from Arcadia. He introduced Alhambra's police chief to Weibo in 2013, and now predicts WeChat will eclipse Weibo in usefulness. He said more people he knows use WeChat because it's on their phone, rather than Weibo, which is usually accessed on computers.

"We're seeing a technology shift with more immigrants moving from traditional desktops to mobile apps," Yu said.

But Yu said that the police department's Weibo page — with more than 40,000 likes —  has gone a long way toward gaining the trust of the Chinese immigrant community.  In the last year, calls to the department requiring Chinese interpreting increased 64 percent

"The comments (on the page) show that they no longer fear the police and they are really trusting the police," Yu said.

Yu said the page also has many fans in China, some of whom have commented on the positive impression they now have of Alhambra, and how they would consider moving there.

In downtown Alhambra, restaurant worker Jack Wang says he’s surprised that local police have a WeChat account, but he approves.

"Sending a message to police is a lot more convenient then calling them," Wang, 25, said.

Lauren Zhang, 26, said it was a smart move by Alhambra police to join WeChat. She and her friends constantly use the messaging service for sending voice messages, animated emoticons and videos.

"I can tell you that every Chinese use it," Zhang said.

Jack Wang

 Jack Wang