By Andrew Cohen
In many ways, Anh Truong ’00 embodies the American dream. “I lived in a safe, idyllic setting and didn’t have to worry about the violence I now see in my work,” said Truong, a prosecutor in the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office. “I walked to my elementary school, rode my bike to junior high, and my high school was six blocks away. I played Little League, married my high school sweetheart, the whole bit.”
That life just north of Santa Barbara was miles removed—literally and otherwise—from his harrowing journey to the United States as a 4-year-old. Truong described that odyssey, and its influence on his career, while accepting the Anti-Defamation League’s prestigious Sherwood Prize for Combating Hate on behalf of a multi-agency effort against a white supremacist gang.
His parents woke him up in the middle of the night, along with his two brothers and sister, to flee Vietnam. Truong recalled wearing his pajamas, losing his slippers in the mud, and walking barefoot onto a tiny boat. He also recalled the “cold, wet, foul-smelling fishing nets” used to hide him and others, then boarding a larger boat—and floating for three days when its engine died. Thankfully, an American freighter ship headed for Hong Kong rescued the passengers.
“America took us in at our darkest hour of need and gave us a place to build a new home and a chance to build a new life,” Truong said. “I’m so grateful to America, and I can never repay that debt. So, when we talk about protecting the vulnerable and standing up against those who would prey on the vulnerable, it’s not so much a decision or choice, it’s a duty for all of us to stand up and say, ‘No. Not in our America, not in our children’s America, and not in their children’s America.’”
Recently, that effort involved driving members of the Peckerwoods gang from San Fernando Valley homes that were reportedly havens for drug and weapons trafficking as well as vehicle, credit card, and identity theft. The gang had an area reputation for intimidating minorities and for homes adorned with swastikas and photos of Adolf Hitler.
A creative strategy
The Sherwood Prize recognizes Southern California law enforcement personnel who go beyond their job descriptions to combat extremism, bigotry, and hatred. Working with the Los Angeles Police Department and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Truong used a creative approach to oust Peckerwoods from three residences.
When a pipe bomb went off in a gang member’s residence across the street from a middle school, “that got law enforcement’s attention,” Truong explained. “The residence had become a hangout for the gang. Because gang members were renting it, we were able to contact the out-of-state property owner and get them evicted.”
After his office filed against two other Peckerwood locations, the ensuing news coverage sparked tips about the gang from others who lived in the same neighborhoods. Those two properties are now engaged in litigation, and Truong said, “We continue to get tips and there are ongoing investigations.”
In December 2016, he directed the filing of civil nuisance abatement lawsuits rather than the more commonly used civil gang injunction, typically filed to increase safety in a designated outdoor neighborhood area or “safety zone.” Civil gang injunctions, which allow courts to rule that the gang represents a nuisance to the community, have come under fire as a rationale for criminalizing young people of color.
By contrast, civil nuisance abatements are more tailored. “This is a different, more surgical type of injunction,” noted Truong, then assistant supervisor of the Los Angeles Citywide Nuisance Abatement Program. “If there’s a house down the block where people are selling drugs or gang members are conducting illegal activities, we’ll sue the property owner and the perpetrators and seek a court injunction as well as hefty civil penalties. It could be a motel, or a strip mall, or a single-family residence.”
Co-workers Rahi Azizi ’10 and Sahar Nayeri ’10 credit Truong’s leadership for making a meaningful difference in Los Angeles neighborhoods.
“From the outset, I was extremely impressed by Anh’s sharp legal acumen, impressive advocacy skills, and vast knowledge of the law and policy,” Azizi said. “But what’s impressed me most is his keen sense of justice and passion for public safety. On a personal level, Anh has been an invaluable mentor to me and has taught me much about the complexities of law enforcement, municipal governance, and public safety work. He’s an inspiration to me and our other colleagues, and his accomplishments are a testament to his immense talents and his desire to do good in the world. He’s one of the best that Boalt has to offer.”
Public service path
A public policy major at Occidental College, Truong’s interest in law school bloomed during his yearlong Coro Southern California Fellows Program in Public Affairs. At Berkeley Law, he was a consultant for the Los Angeles Charter Reform Commission and the Pasadena Charter Reform Taskforce, and helped teach young people about the law in schools and corrections sites.
Truong cited several Berkeley Law courses as instrumental in shaping his career, including Torts with Stephen Sugarman, Constitutional Law with William Fletcher, Civil Procedure and Evidence with Jan Vetter, and Legal Research with Robert Berring ’74. He especially enjoyed Complex Civil Litigation, in which he obtained the American Jurisprudence Award. The instructor, Michael Cypers ’81, helped bring Truong aboard at his then law firm, Alschuler Grossman Stein & Kahan. As a fifth-year associate, Truong “then felt comfortable that I’d learned enough to dive back into the public sector.”
After helping to steer the Los Angeles Citywide Nuisance Abatement Program for 12 years, Truong recently became director of the newly-created Los Angeles Anti-Sex and Labor Trafficking initiative. As always, he aims to protect the vulnerable and prosecute those who threaten neighborhood safety.
His Sherwood Prize acceptance speech triggered a standing ovation and prompted many of the hundreds of colleagues in attendance to tell him they shared his outlook. He called that response “heartwarming and energizing” for the work that lies ahead.
“As law enforcement, we shouldn’t be picking and choosing who we protect,” Truong said. “We protect the entire community.”