When Hennepin County Sheriff's Deputy Thuan Vuong left Vietnam for the United States, his perception of law enforcement was negative.

In his native country, people didn't trust police — a notion that many immigrants held onto when they moved to Minnesota, Vuong said. That's why he joined the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office and became part of its community engagement team.

"My background as an immigrant and a foreigner helps to build trust between my community and other groups with the same background to get closer to law enforcement," Vuong said.

"When I go to the events, I tell them that without this uniform, I'm like one of you."

In September, the sheriff's community engagement team was awarded a $250,000 federal grant to hire two members for three years, increasing the group's size to nine. Team members include civilians and sworn officers who attend community meetings and cultural events, and serve as the sheriff's ambassadors to the community.

"We are very happy," Sheriff Rich Stanek said. "This grant will continue to build community ambassadors and have them go out and talk about law enforcement."

In 2015, the team hosted 186 discussions, participated in 196 cultural events and held five daylong citizen academies, officials said.

'It feels good'

Carmen Lopez, a civilian team member, was initially hesitant to join.

Lopez was a case manager for the county, helping families get food support, health care and other aid, and wasn't familiar with law enforcement.

"It's a different environment; clients usually come to me, so I was used to seeing them every day," Lopez said.

She asked another team member what her duties would be. He told her to talk to community members and find out their needs. "Well, I said, I already know them," Lopez said. "Because when [clients] come to me, they start talking and crying."

Lopez, now a liaison to the Native American and Latino communities, thought she could help the community even more by being on the other side. She was hired last year.

"I'm like the bridge from the community to the officers, my co-workers," Lopez said. "From all of my work experience, this is one that I say I love. I enjoy getting up and coming to work."

During the holidays, Vuong and members of the Asian Law Enforcement Police Officer Association provide gifts and donations to a few families in need.

He noticed that one particular family, recently new to the area, was struggling.

"I saw the grandma was sick and sleeping on the floor on newspapers; they didn't have any mattress," Vuong said. "You could tell the kids were hungry and there was nothing in the fridge."

Vuong, who is the liaison to the Asian community, could relate.

"I remember when I was poor in Vietnam and we would boil an egg, cut it up in six pieces and share it among siblings, and that was a meal," he said.

"It feels good we could do something for the community, and I feel proud because of my background."

Karen Zamora • 612-673-4647

Twitter: @KarenAnelZamora