Salt Lake police are hoping a yearlong program to help Southeast Asian refugees overcome cultural barriers will prevent a spring return of California-based gangs.

According to Salt Lake Police Detective Monty Kramer, when a series of robberies rocked Salt Lake's Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian and Hmong populations last year, police found it difficult to even gather some of the most basic facts about the cases.Along with the obvious language barriers, police found that cultural differences made these people fear the police. In their homelands, police are an arm of a corrupt military establishment, torture criminals and accept bribes.

"A lot has to do with the way they viewed police officers. After they come to this country they still have the same attitude toward law-enforcement officers as they did in Vietnam and Cambodia," said Kramer.

Under the direction of Sgt. Mac Connole, Kramer started a program to help change refugees' attitudes about the police and curb crime underreporting.

Along with establishing a network of translators to respond to crime scenes, police translated fliers asking for crime information into Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian. They have left copies in Asian markets where refugees shop. The police have also spoken at the groups' church functions and social gatherings.

"We wanted to show them that in America police are honorable and that they need to report crimes," Kramer said.

While suspicion still exists, he believes the meetings helped quell mass hysteria that had prompted many to buy guns during the gang crime spree.

The gangs, based in Southern California, preyed upon Asians in Salt Lake City and across the United States.

Police said they believe gang members arrived in Salt Lake City last June, simply looked up Asian names in the phone book. They then went on an armed rampage resulting in at least four armed robberies and a near homicide. Three Vietnamese teenagers were arrested in connection with the crimes.

"There are certain groups that victimize Asian families. They target just Asian groups," he said.

Last summer and fall the highly mobile gang members surfaced across North America and terrorized Asian families as far east as Toronto, said Kramer. He said he believes more gang members might come to Salt Lake City again this spring and summer.

In addition to meeting with refugee groups, the police started studying their cultures, said Ming Wang, program director with the Asian Association of Utah.

Wang has taught culture classes to Salt Lake Valley police officers as well as trainee's in the state's Police Officer Standards Training program. Among other things, officers are taught to not be startled if Southeast Asians get out of the car when receiving a traffic citation. They only do so out of respect.

Coin rubbing, which brings blood to the skin surface, is part of southeast Asian folk medicine to purge the body of "bad winds." Americans often misinterpret the marks as child abuse.

Police are also told not interpret Asians' lack of eye contact to mean they have "something to hide." Eye contact is considered disrespectful in their cultures. They are also told to avoid physical contact, which is considered offensive, said Wang.