Officer Roy Choe had hardly finished the paperwork on the first car accident off Stone Road when another dispatch came in. Choe drove a mile in a light drizzling rain to the new accident—another car rear-ended near Braddock Rd. and Route 28.
Another patrol officer had already responded, but the information on Choe's patrol car computer screen had grabbed his attention. One of the last names of a person in the accident was Korean.
"If any Korean people are involved in any incident, I always try to respond if I can," he explained to a passenger in his car. If someone has difficulty with English or is new to the country, Choe can help.
Choe, 47, is a patrol officer with the Fairfax County Police Department, but "jack-of-all-trades" might be a more accurate job title. As one of the few FCPD officers fluent in Korean, Choe is one of the most in-demand officers in the department, and other law enforcement agencies frequently request his help. He's worked virtually every type of case, from minor traffic accidents to human trafficking, to homicide investigations. Under certain conditions, he is even authorized to introduce himself as a detective. This versatility on the job is why the Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) recently selected Choe as the 2011 Sully District Officer of the Year.
Over 10 percent of the population in Centreville alone are of Korean descent, according to the 2010 Census, so Choe's services are valuable to the department. Aside from his fluency in the language, he's experienced life in America as an immigrant himself. Choe was born in Seoul, South Korea, and first came to the United States for a brief period in high school. He then returned to South Korea for 30 months of compulsory military service, and eventually came back to America with a green card.
"When I came to the United States, I didn't have anything," said Choe, who became a citizen in the year 2000, at age 36.
Choe started out his career at the West Springfield station, but transferred to Sully after two years. He is the only Korean speaker at the station, so he's worked hard to build a stronger relationship between the police department and the local Korean-American community. Choe has, for example, spoken to local churches about traffic laws, the differences between how American and Korean police departments work, and crime trends. After hearing about his work, the Korean embassy reached out to Choe to participate in a seminar along with other police officers in the Washington, DC, area.
Though Choe has an uncle in Korea who served as a firefighter for 30 years, he is the first person in his family to become a police officer. "Maybe my daughter will be next, who knows," the father of two said with a smile.
Others have taken notice of his work over the past seven years.
"Many people have counted on PFC Choe to bridge a language gap and help further investigations through careful analysis and interpretation. I have received nothing but praise from those he assisted," Second Lt. Ryan Morgan wrote in the nomination form for officer of the year.
"I see how many ways Roy has been pulled...Roy this year has worked on everybody else's schedule but his," Morgan said at a recent CAC meeting.
After leaving the accident on Braddock Road, Choe drove across town, and pulled in to a parking spot at a Centreville townhouse. He had answered a call to look in on an 85-year-old woman who wasn't answering her phone. For the next hour, the rain poured down and soaked through his uniform as he tried to assist an elderly woman. Initially it wasn't quite clear what the problem was, or even if there was one at all.
The woman answered the door, but something about the situation seemed wrong to Choe. The friend who called the police had said the woman was always very sharp and aware of her surroundings. But the elderly woman wasn't really responding to Choe's questions, and though she'd agreed to let the medical personnel in to check on her, she couldn't figure out how to unlock her front door to let them inside. Finally, firefighters decided to remove the door completely, as they were concerned that she might have had a stroke. By then Choe was soaked after spending well over an hour in the pouring rain, but he didn't complain.
He appreciates the value of this kind of work, he said, but ultimately he has other ambitions. He wants to be a full-fledged detective, which he has the experience to do. As one of a handful of officers in a special unit that works with non-English speakers, Choe carries two badges. One is a regular patrol badge, the other is for a detective. He only uses the detective badge for some cases that involve Korean speakers.
"When I respond as Detective Roy Choe, people's responses are a little different than if I come in as a patrol officer," he explained.
But there are times when titles just don't matter, as in December, when Choe had to stop a patient at a mental health facility who was cutting himself with a knife. Without waiting for backup, Choe crept up behind the man, tackled him and disarmed him. For that, Choe earned a nomination for a Meritorious Action Award.
His language skills are in such demand that he frequently gets called to work on his day off. Choe once dropped everything to review 400 pages of documents from five hours of audio tapes to help prosecutors at the last minute with a murder trial.
"Roy has been gracious," said Morgan. "I don't think 'no' is in his vocabulary."
Editor's note: This article was published on March 14, 2012.