When you are the first member of your community, your culture, to become something as quintessentially American as a police officer, well, you might be a little cautious about tooting your own horn.
That’s why, as he was about to graduate from the St. Paul Police Academy Thursday night and become what is believed to be the first Karen police officer in the United States, Ler Htoo wasn’t quite ready to mark the accomplishment.
“It’s not over yet,” he said before the ceremony, looking to the next 16 weeks of field training with veteran officers. “I’m not quite there yet.”
Still, he’s come a long way.
Htoo spent the first three years of his life in his native Myanmar and the next 15 in refugee camps in Thailand. In 2009, when Htoo was 18, he and his family moved to St. Paul. In 2011, he graduated from St. Paul’s Como Park High School, where he ran track and cross country. He then graduated from Hennepin County Technical College after studying law enforcement.
His interest in becoming a cop was always strong. He joined the St. Paul Police Explorer Program before becoming an award-winning member of the department’s community liaison program, helping members of St. Paul’s Karen community navigate the laws and customs of a new country.
Earlier this year, Htoo was a finalist for civilian employee of the year for his liaison work — teaching in-service classes, making presentations to business associations and schools and helping organize Karen youth groups and elder meetings.
“This is what I like to do. I want to help people,” Htoo said. “I like when people approach me. I want to be the one they can count on in my community.”
As the St. Paul Police band played “Pomp and Circumstance” from the Johnson High School auditorium balcony Thursday night, new officers marched to the stage, preparing to take their place among the state’s second-largest police department. An auditorium filled with families and friends taking photos, shooting videos and registering memories, looked on with pride.
“Take pride in the work you do, for the department, for each other and for the city of St. Paul,” St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith told them. “Know that your actions will be judged not just by what you do, but how you do it.”
Htoo is part of the largest — and most diverse — incoming class of new St. Paul police officers in at least 30 years. Forty-seven officers were sworn in Thursday. Five of the graduates are women, one is Latino, three are African-American, nine are Asian, 15 are military veterans.
The class swells the ranks of the St. Paul Police Department to 615 sworn officers, the most in the city’s history.
‘A huge breakthrough’
Karen leaders praised Smith’s choice in picking Htoo.
Saw Morrison, a program manager with the Karen Organization of Minnesota, said Htoo’s hiring represents a door opening for the Karen in Minnesota — of opportunity and responsibility to give back to the broader community.
Htoo, he said, is “passionate and committed. His goal is very clear, to help the community and represent the whole community.”
Chong Vang, executive director of the Karen Organization of Minnesota, was asked about the impact of Htoo becoming a cop.
“It’s huge,” he said. “We have had a number of conversations about how to get a Karen person on the force, about how to improve cultural competency. This is a huge breakthrough for the community and for Ler, too.”
There are an estimated 8,500 Karen in Minnesota. The ethnic group was persecuted in its native Myanmar.
Not only will Htoo be able to help his fellow officers better understand the growing Karen community, but he will help the community better understand its responsibilities and expectations here in the United States, Vang said.
“He can educate the community about the police force and their role,” he said. “That’s important, for a community that has been persecuted by the [Myanmar] government in the past.”
Vang was asked if being the first Karen officer in Minnesota, and possibly the nation, puts pressure on Htoo.
“There is always a level of pressure,” he said. “But Ler Htoo is smart. He has a good head on his shoulders. I think he will be able to navigate the challenges that will come his way. He is not shy about talking about the laws and regulations and what is OK and not OK.”
Before he feels completely comfortable doing that, Htoo acknowledged, he has a bit more work to do.
“You have to be constantly learning. With this job, you can’t stop learning,” he said, looking forward to the next four months with excitement — and a little nervousness. “With all the laws and the statutes, there is much to know.”