Whether it’s “Coffee with a Cop” or sponsoring a back-to-school drive, the Houston Police Department’s neighborhood or community-oriented policing model has always looked for fresh ideas to help law enforcement connect with residents.
Officers at the HPD West Side Command Station, located in a heavily Asian-American community, took that to another level this year when they debuted the department’s first lion dance team.
Lion dances are a popular traditional dance in Chinese and other Asian cultures in which performers dance and emulate lion movements under decorative costumes with the leader wearing an exaggerated, decorative lion’s head. The custom goes back 5,000 years and is usually performed during the Chinese New Year and other cultural and religious festivals.
The HPD team performed an eye-dotting ceremony, which empowers the lion to fulfill its duty of protection. The ceremony also welcomed new members of the team, which is comprised of more than 20 HPD officers from divisions ranging from patrol to juvenile, the Differential Response Team, vehicular crimes, traffic enforcement, and one from a crime suppression team.
The lion’s dance team is a means to bridge the gap between the city’s Asian community and the police, Sgt. Alex Chan said.
“We’re always trying to think of new concepts and ideas to interact with the crowd. We believe lion dancing is something different and something the community hasn’t seen or knows much about, so we’re here to share our culture with the rest of the communities,” he said.
Houston is only the second police department to feature a lion dance team. The San Francisco Police Department created the first one.
“They are the only two departments in the U.S. that does this. We hope more police departments across the country will join us,” Chan said.
Serving something greater than ourselves
The idea for the dance team came from HPD Assistant Chief Ban Tien, who helped host the annual National Asian Peace Officer Association National Conference in Houston in November 2022. The team has performed at the Westwood Assisted Living Community and Bellerive Senior Apartments, as well as the Lunar New Year.
Chan is one of the leaders of the department team, along with Lt. Jonathan Lui. When the decision was made to create an HPD lion dance team, Lui said he didn’t know how to perform it.
“I didn’t have any experience, but I knew our department was talented and we had a lot of people from different backgrounds. I started making phone calls and the first person I called was Chan. He’s been doing this for 28 years. He was a great person to start with and so we formed our team.”
Chan got involved with these performances at an early age.
“My dad also learned line dancing and martial arts when he was a kid. When we moved here, I joined a team at age of 8 and have been doing it ever since,” he said.
The team rehearses weekly on Tuesdays for three hours at the Chinese Community Center. The police officers’ jobs and schedules vary, but they all make a great effort on going to practice, Lui said.
“As with everything in life, you make time for things you love,” Lui said. “However, if I have a night shift officer who had a late call and will not make it to practice, I know he or she will be out, and I will see them next week.”
The rehearsals start with the team sitting in a circle discussing the dance and moves and then practicing their choreography with the lion’s head costumes and their musical instruments.
Taking part in activities like this demonstrate the power of culture sharing, said Nhi Troung, a financial opportunity center manager at the Chinese Community Center.
“We empower people from different ethnic groups to represent themselves through cultural bonding,” she said. “HPD practicing their lion dancing here empowers and strengthens the relationship between the center and the police department.”
Non-Asian officers like Emily Tracy are also part of the team.
“Sgt. Chan works the evening shift and he talked to me and my partner, and we thought it would be a cool opportunity,” she said. “We came to practice, saw what they did and started learning all the different parts. We’ve been here ever since.”
Hailing from Chicago, Tracy joined HPD nearly three years ago after graduating college and following her family to Houston. As the head of one of the lions, that has been one of the biggest challenges for her, she said.
“It takes a lot of strength and timing, as well as staying on beat with the music. The music helps guide the lion through the performance,” Tracy said. “I learned the cymbals first, so I had an understanding of that, but it’s just learning all the choreography that goes along with it.”
The experience has also given her insight to the importance of the lion dance to the city’s Asian community. Community-oriented policing activities like this also help residents see that police officers are more than just people wearing the uniform.
“I didn’t know how big of a thing this was in the community. When we did the Lunar New Year last November, I had no idea it was going to be this big event,” she said. “It shows us going out and interacting in a different way with the community, not wearing our uniforms. It can show people just like you are police officers.”
It also helps her get to meet her fellow officers.
“It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve gotten to meet a lot of new people that I probably wouldn’t have met on the department since it’s so big. Now, when we all come together, I hope it’s around for the long haul,” Tracy said.
Both Lui and Chan agree having non-Asian police officers as team members helps bridge cultural understanding in the community.
“It always does. We always try to be diverse,” Chan said. “We always talk about representation, and when little kids see us, they’re all smiles. They don’t expect to see a police officer in a lion costume.”
Lui said everyone has cultural observances that lead to great memories.
“It could be food, holiday dances, etc. For me, it is illustrating that joy that I felt as a kid,” he said.
Lui remembers seeing an HPD officer he would call “Uncle Pat” come and eat at his family’s restaurant and the impact it had on them.
“We became family friends, and I would always be excited for his visit. My dad eventually left the restaurant business and became a police officer himself,” he said. “As a kid I was like, ‘I can do that when I grow up too.’ We must remember that each interaction we have may make a big impact.”
Activities like the lion dances also help with promoting a more positive image for police officers.
“The key message is that we are all human. In the end we all want the same thing, which is bringing everyone together,” Lui said. “Great friends will listen and help you when you are in need. Police officers are human as well. We can wear different hats, but in our case we are wearing lion heads to build more bonds with the community.”
Chan said he wants the community to have a good time with police department representatives and contact them if they ever need any help, and especially not be afraid of them.
“As police officers we have to enforce the law, but there are other sides to us as well,” he said. “With the lion dancing, they forget that we’re police officers. It’s been a wonderful experience.”