Jimmy Yang was 16 years old when he heard St. Paul police officer John Harrington speak at Johnson Senior High School. He felt like Harrington knew the challenges of being a Hmong immigrant living in the McDonough housing projects.  

That was almost 20 years ago, but Harrington's message stayed with Yang, who grew up watching friends get dragged into the middle of police matters as interpreters for parents. Yang thought his community, which wasn't trusting of the department or police practices, should have officers who understood their cultural issues. So Yang, 35, became a St. Paul police officer 10 years ago and now serves as president of the Minnesota Asian Peace Officers Association, working to educate the department and community while recruiting officers of color.

On Thursday, the association presented Harrington with an appreciation award for his work with the Asian-American community and support in founding the group.

"He recognizes the importance of Asian officers supporting themselves as a whole in the department and the specific needs" they face, Yang said.

Harrington helped Yang and three other St. Paul officers form the Minnesota chapter of the National Asian Peace Officers' Association in 2008. The chapter has about 40 members across the state, most of them from the metro area.

Harrington, who joined the force in 1977 and served as chief from 2004 to 2010, said his experience as a black officer taught him the importance of diversity and support for officers of color.

"I thank you for the brotherhood and the family you've invited me into," he said as he accepted the award.

Harrington also said he regretted the fact that no Asian officers were promoted to the rank of sergeant under his watch.

"I think we really need to move on that," he said.

Police chiefs and officers from Minneapolis, Roseville, Brooklyn Center and the State Patrol and Ramsey County Sheriff Matt Bostrom were on hand Thursday.

St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith also attended, noting that Harrington worked toward diversifying the department long before he was chief.

"He is a pioneer ... in realizing how St. Paul [police] had to look," Smith said.

According to numbers released last month, the department has 594 sworn officers. Thirty-four officers are Asian, about 5.7 percent of the force. According to the 2010 Census, Asians make up 15 percent of St. Paul's population and 4 percent of the state's.

Smith said Harrington also helped create the department's Shop With Cops program in 2000, where disenfranchised children from the Frogtown and Summit-University neighborhoods, many of them Asian, shop for holiday gifts for their families.

Officers and community members praised Harrington for his regular appearances at community events, being accessible and holding the first and only Hmong citizens police academy in 2005.

"Whenever there's an issue, you can call him," said Bao Vang, president and CEO of Hmong American Partnership, the largest Hmong organization in the state.

After retiring, Harrington won Mee Moua's state Senate seat in District 67 on St. Paul's East Side, left after one term and was named Metro Transit police chief in August.

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib