It is a quiet night in Prince George's County. Only the convenience stores show life.

As the county police cruiser moves through the sometimes-hectic Hyattsville District, the officer keeps an eye on the shadowy doorways, the thick bushes around the low-income garden apartments. Right now, nothing. Later, who knows?

Officer Khanh Tran, 32, realizes that life is shaped by the unexpected. If not, he might be a banking executive or, like his father, a diplomat in his childhood country of South Vietnam. As it is, Tran is the only Southeast Asian police officer in a county that is increasingly home to thousands of Southeast Asian refugees -- who can't speak English, can't get decent jobs and have a deep and abiding distrust of police.

"There are a lot of crimes that go unreported in the Asian community," he said. "That's because of the language barrier, but it's also because of that stigma lingering from the old days back home -- that police are corrupt."

Tran, a seven-year member of the force, knows firsthand the alienation these latest immigrants are experiencing. His father, a senior diplomat, brought the family to the Washington area in 1968, when Tran was 14.

The plan was to get an education and return home in a couple of years. "Of course, when the country fell, that idea was gone," he said.

In their first months here, Tran and his five brothers and sisters had difficulty learning English; he recalls a few misadventures.

"I was enrolled in Falls Church High School and we live in Arlington County," he said. "When we got on the bus to go home, we were just hoping for the best -- that we'd recognize our house and know when to get off. We'd ride all the way into D.C. until finally the bus driver would turn around and say, 'Hey, this is the end of the line. You've got to get off now.'

"We'd end up on the phone, crying, to ask our father to come and get us. It happened more than once."

The first time another student at school greeted Tran with "Hi," he quickly consulted his dictionary and felt insulted.

"I thought he was saying 'high,' meaning that I was too short and should grow taller," Tran said with a laugh. "I had absolutely no clue about {the expression} 'What's happening?' "

The idea of joining a police force came to him a few years later, when his family bought a restaurant on Rte. 50 in Cambridge, Md., that was a haunt of Maryland state police officers. Tran put aside his economics degree from Salisbury State College and put on a uniform -- the first year in Arlington County, since then in Prince George's. Tran, who is single, lives in an apartment in southern Prince George's.

His superiors describe him as a good officer -- dependable, concerned, detail-minded. Tran is outspoken, however, in his opinion that the county must do more for its growing Asian and Hispanic populations, which are largely concentrated in the low-income apartments of Hyattsville and nearby Langley Park.

He'd like to see the police department open an office of ethnic affairs and he'd like to spend more time away from his routine patrols to work with the Southeast Asians in his district.

Only a few months ago, he was transferred to Hyattsville from the more peaceful, predominantly white Bowie District.

The cruiser turns into the Ager Terrace apartment complex, a collection of red-brick buildings off Ager Road in Hyattsville with a large concentration of Asians. "I come through as often as I can," Tran said, "just to let everybody know I'm here."

He drives to the end of the street, where there is a small playground, a favorite hangout for a group of about 20 Vietnamese teens whose behavior has him worried. No one is there.

"They don't go to school and they have no jobs," he said. "They go around asking for money from other Vietnamese. They prey on their own people, because they know nobody can speak enough English to report them to police. I feel sorry for them all -- the kids and the victims. They need a lot of help."

He has heard various disturbing reports -- most of them long after the fact -- about vandalism, intimidation. An elderly woman told Tran her two sons were badly beaten when they said they had no money.

"Right now they are youngsters," he said. "They are impressionable. We can stop them now if we try, while everything is still manageable. Otherwise, we're going to have a big, big problem."

He turns the cruiser around, headed out again. Although it is long after midnight, a few people still sit on the steps and in the doorways of the apartment houses. They wave at Tran as he drives by; he grins and waves back.