A Chat with Captain Josh Thai

Malibu Magazine sat down with Lost Hills Sheriff's Department Captain Josh Thai to discuss some of the biggest challenges and most notable achievements of his tenure thus far.

MM: Have you always wanted to work in law enforcement?

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Captain Thai: Growing up, my godfather was retired from a police department, that was part of the influence that got me doing this. Also, growing up with friends in high school that some of their parents were involved in law enforcement, so that’s how I kind of got into the law enforcement field.

MM: What inspires you?

Captain Thai: Part of it is that when I first came to this country—I wasn’t born here—my godfather was a role model who was trying to bring me and assimilate me into the American lifestyle and country. He would take me down to LAPD academy and show me what police work was about, his son in law was a sergeant, and he set me up on ride alongs. He was trying to gear me towards the positives and the right path in my career, and in my life. He was guiding me towards that direction, from a very young age.

MM: Can you tell me a little bit about your background?

Captain Thai: I was born in Vietnam. My grandparents were from China, and they came over to Vietnam when they were in their twenties—both born in 1915. That’s where my parents were born. After the fall of Saigon we were so-to-speak “the boat people”. We escaped the country in a boat as refugees and ended up going to face some difficulties in the seas. We were robbed by pirates, and it ended up being a rescue and I was taken to the refugee camp in Malaysia where I stayed about six months. Then, a church in New Jersey sponsored us and we ended up going there. We lived there for a little while but initially coming to this country with my grandparents who were in their sixties already, coming from Vietnam which is a very tropical country, to New Jersey which is very cold caused us to move to California. That’s why I grew up in California.

MM: What is it like working in law enforcement in Malibu as opposed to a more metropolitan area like LA?

Captain Thai: Every place you work is a little bit different. I have worked in several different stations. But by far, in this area, the communities are very supportive. From the community to the businesspeople, the city officials and government officials, they are all very pro-law enforcement. They are so supportive of what we do, it is just a nice place to be. It is not super-fast-paced, but with the city of Malibu residency-wise only being about 13,000, year-round with the number of visitors coming in, that number goes up to ten to twelve million. Compared to other areas, the crime rate is low, however property crime is high because you have visitors that come here being a little bit—I don’t want to say—careless, leave things open and exposed, not expecting things to be stolen. All-in-all the one thing I have to say is the very people make it a great area to be. The biggest thing that stands out is the support of the community.

MM: Can you tell me a little bit about a typical day in your position?

Captain Thai: The little things here are of more concern. For me, it’s the traffic. If you look at PCH it’s the main through-route for Malibu residents. Traffic is our biggest concern here and we have to try to monitor that. One of the things is I coordinate with all the other agencies when something does happen to ensure that the notifications get passed to the community, so they can alter their routes or leave earlier—whatever the case may be. My typical day is that I have my responsibility of responding to the needs of my community to the best of my ability. We obviously also have paperwork to review, and I am not the kind of guy to rubber stamp everything. I like to read everything, if it has my signature on it, I have to make sure of what it is. We have our typical use-of-force which comes with extensive documentation. When we have a complaint, we conduct extensive investigations done by the supervisors here and I oversee all of that. It’s never-ending paperwork and that’s just the nature of the job.

MM: What has been the most challenging aspect of your work?

Captain Thai: I think there is a fine line between serving the people within the station and externally. What they say is: a happy place, if you’re happy when you work, you are going to produce better work. If you are unhappy with where you work, then it triggers everything else, low productivity, conflict. Part of my job is ensuring we take care of the deputies and that their needs are met, whether it be their equipment, their families and things like that. So, the challenging part is balancing taking care of my station folks and also the community. I have approximately 150 people at this station. Imagine I have 150 kids and you’re trying to herd everyone. I have my philosophy and I’m constantly trying to instill that philosophy and how I want things done, in my staff. However, just like with herding sheep, there are always a couple that are going to run off and you’re constantly trying to herd them back through the right direction. We have people from all experience levels and ages. Some are more mature than others, some are older but less mature. We also have some that are harpers, some that are so-so and some that have a lot of years and experience and those that are very new sometimes just need a lot of help and encouragement. It’s just finding a balance and finding the right people—the best people for the job. Community service is our #1.

MM: How does your department work to address the homeless problem?

Captain Thai: It is something we work with the city to address. The city has been working to address the problem continuously for years. There are those community members that are very supportive of the homeless, which is great, we need to help them to better themselves. At the same time, how far do you go? We have the other side of the community that complains that we aren’t doing anything for the homeless—actually no. When there’s a place that provides them with services, as Malibu does, they’re going to be here and you know for us it’s the balance of law enforcement and helping. I know the city does a lot to try to provide various services for them. They are experts in homeless issues, they offer everything they need but it’s hard for those people that do not want to take advantage of it, you cannot force them. Also, those [community members] that oppose all the services the city provides, they need to attend the council meetings. They need to go stand-up for what they want to do. We want, and the city wants to hear from both sides of the debate. The best thing I can suggest doing is being there to voice your opinions, so we can make the best decisions for the community.

MM: What type of community outreach programs does the department conduct?

Captain Thai: One of the things I would like to do in the near future is a Clergy Advisory Committee. Right now, I have one representative from Malibu and also someone from Calabasas. They are helping me to try to gather different faith-based and church group leaders of the community, they are the voice of gestation. I like to hear what is going on from their perspectives in the community and what could I do to better service their needs. The biggest thing, I think is that we need to be more alert of everything. I know that some of the beachgoers and some of the community people fail to lock their cars and leave their valuables in plain view. So, we need to do more education. It has to do with the stray cat theory. If I was a thief and I knew that people always leave valuables out in a certain place, I would keep coming back to that place to steal. That’s what people need to be aware of.

MM: What does the STTOP program entail?

Captain Thai: The STTOP program is basically when the community patrols in their neighborhoods. It started with teen drivers, essentially as a way to detect those teen drivers being reckless in the community so we can track that and go have a chat. Often times the parents don’t even know that their son or daughter has bad driving behaviors. So that is part of the program. It is like with anything, we need the communities’ eyes and ears, law enforcement is a partnership. The chances of us to catch a ‘bad guy’ red handed is pretty rare, it does happen but it’s always about timing. Our chances are increased when the community is our eyes and ears. That also goes for- if you know- your neighbors call and verify suspicious activity with them. It’s important to know your community and know your neighbors, get along with your neighbors and watch out for each other. Police work is not just police it’s more of a partnership with the community.

MM: How do you address biker safety for the large biker population in Malibu?

Captain Thai: The thing is that, I am not an expert in this, but it’s just follow the rules of the road and share the road. I know it is tough being a bicyclist myself, I know it is. At the same time, depending on which canyon, but people are trying to get around and they cannot because the road narrows etc. But, if everyone acted with some kind of consideration for one another, just knowing your limitations is important. While you are riding a bicycle, don’t think that you are the same as a car. You do have to follow the same traffic laws as a car, but do not try to take the whole lane as if you are a car. At the same time, being a driver you need to realize that bikes are considered a form of transportation and they have the same rules and you need to take in consideration when it is too dangerous for them to hug close to the curb. All in all, have fun but don’t take it to the point where you have some crazy guy who wants to ram over you because you were taking up the whole lane.

MM: Can you tell me a little bit about how your department addresses at-risk teens?

Captain Thai: We do have a team we call the J-Team. This is a Juvenile Intervention team. They are the ones—two deputies and a detective—that are assigned to go to schools when there is an issue with a kid at the school. They go there and help out, if there is a crime committed, they will take appropriate action. If it is a certain issue, they will make address to the parents and they basically evaluate and gather intelligence. We only have two deputies covering 30 schools. We recognize when kids need help, but we rely on the school to alert us.

MM: Do you personally have any philanthropic involvement?

Captain Thai: Well as far as community wise, I spend the majority of my time at work. However, I also go to speak at the YMCA, I have been on a Project Citizen- the youth government panel. I sit on those panels and listen to some of their debates and proposals for laws, and pick the winners to go to the state capital and present there. We get involved in the holidays in toy drives, and an annual Pancakes-with-Santa at the station. We also host open-houses where we invite the community in to look at the station and enjoy food. Outside of work, my kids are in band and I’m one of those band dads that goes and helps out with the band. I have built props and things like that. Other than that, when my day is done, I am drained.

MM: What is your most prided achievement?

Captain Thai: To me I never expected that I would become a captain. Especially being a captain here at this station, I am technically the chief of police for five cities. I think it is just the most honorable thing. I never thought, coming over here as an immigrant, first a refugee, to now a captain at one of the most prestigious stations it’s unbelievable. I’m still thinking it’s a dream. I sometimes still can’t believe it. As a deputy, my goal was to pursue major crimes. I wanted to go after the Asian gangs and that’s what I enjoyed, I thought I was going to work as an Asian gang detective throughout my whole career. Never thought I would be promoted, let alone be a captain. I have a lot to be thankful for. Many people helped me throughout my career, I am thankful for the current Sheriff, Jim McDonald, for his support. It is a tough job, and for him to trust me to oversee five cities is a great honor. My success is not because of me, it is because of all the people, and the hardworking people at the station who supported that. There are just great people here.

MM: What does Malibu mean to you?

Captain Thai: One thing I notice is the people of Malibu really take ‘community’ to heart. They always want to preserve the community and the city itself. There are a lot of people who have been here for a long time that want to keep the old traditions of Malibu. It is a prestigious place. The thing is that, because it is so well known, there are a lot of visitors. It is a very kind community and that is part of the old school mentality due to the many people who have lived in Malibu for a long, long time. I think that they are the reason it is not overly-explosive in terms of commercialization and things like that. The community enjoys that beachy, simple sense of community.

MM: What is your favorite place in Malibu?

Captain Thai: You know for me, I like to just go up the canyons and pull off and pause and look over the ocean. Going down Kanan, I will just pull over to the side and stare at the water for a bit. Whether I am on a call or normal drive, it’s just peaceful.

MM: What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

Captain Thai: Well I have been trying to clean my garage for the past twelve years and it seems like there’s always just more stuff. I spend most of my time working. Stuff just keeps adding up.

MM: Can you tell me a little bit about your family life?

Captain Thai: I have two children, 19 and 17. My son is in college at the University of Minnesota and my daughter goes to college at California Lutheran University next year.

MM: How would you describe yourself in three words?

Captain Thai: One lucky man.

MM: How has Malibu impacted you?

Captain Thai: For me it’s that, I am so honored for the support they have given me throughout my time here. MM

Holly Bieler