Walking in the annual Chinatown Night Out event on Portsmouth Square, William Ma was bombarded with requests for selfies—as usual.
The young San Francisco police officer—who’s Chinese American and fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese—became a popular Chinatown fixture by dint of his good looks, welcoming personality and hard work. He was like a local celebrity, with photos of him often circulating on social media.
Since last week, however, he’s been off the Chinatown beat after being reassigned to SFPD’s headquarters as an officer in the Community Engagement Division.
Though his new role is a step-up, Ma said he’ll always have a place in his heart for the city’s historic Chinese neighborhood, where Wednesday’s Chinatown Night Out served as something of a homecoming for the former beat cop.
“Of course I miss Chinatown,” Ma told The Standard between posing for photos with adoring fans. “But I think it’s worth it to try to make what we do here citywide.”
Ma said he’s not necessarily leaving Chinatown. Even though he’s not patrolling on a day-to-day basis, he still plans to stop by his old stomping grounds for events—and to take what he learned about community engagement there and apply it to the city’s community policing efforts throughout San Francisco.
“The most important tool a police department can have is the relationships that we build with the community,” Ma explained.
Since the pandemic and the Stop Asian Hate movement, SF’s Chinatown—the nation’s oldest—has been one of the most outspoken voices in support of local police. And the connection between the community and the cops who patrol it has been touted as a model for communities elsewhere. It even attracted international attention from Vancouver police leaders, who recently traveled to Chinatown to learn from SFPD.
“Just ask anyone in Chinatown what they think of SFPD,” Ma said. “They'll tell you how they trust us and when there are problems, [they] have zero hesitation letting us know.”
But Ma’s reassignment has triggered mixed feelings in the community.
Edward Siu, the president and chairman of the Chinatown Merchants United Association, said he wanted to congratulate Ma, but that he’s not too thrilled about the neighborhood losing a bilingual officer—and a beloved one at that.
“It’s a good thing for him,” Siu said, “and I have been requesting to have another culturally competent and bilingual officer to fill his slot.”
Julian Ng, the SFPD commander in charge of community engagement, recruited Ma to his new role. He said Ma will maintain his ties with Chinatown while applying his talent and cultural connection with the Asian American community citywide.
“Officer Ma has a lot to offer for the city,” Ng said. “He will learn a lot and will have a lot of great experience [in his new role].”
As for Ma, he says that even though he wants badly to reconnect with the Chinatown community and the grandpas and grandmas that he felt personally close to, he's enjoying his new job.
“Ultimately that’s why I joined the department, right?” he said. “I wanted to protect my community.”