With its white, coral beaches, empty roads and primo snorkeling, the island of Tongatapu, Tonga, is a far cry from the bustling Bay Area.

Violent crimes are about as rare as a chilly day, there's a lot of respect for police and there are just 111 prisoners in the whole Kingdom of Tonga, six of them female.

But even with those differences, the idyllic island had a lot to teach local police about life back home.

San Bruno Police Cpl. Mark Phillips and Burlingame Sgt. Ed Nakiso returned from a recent trip there, where they took in the culture and got ideas on how to curb violence among young Tongans in their cities.

Both officers said they were struck by the kindness of the people and how differently their youth acted.

In Tongatapu, kids are respectful to their parents and avoid doing anything that might disgrace their family name, said Nakiso, who battled pneumonia during their trip, from March 10 to 17.

In the U.S., Tongan kids are often raised by two working parents andmostly left alone. Strapped for time, their parents are trying to raise enough money and, they hope, send some back home.

But in Tongatapu, everyone seemed to keep a sharp eye on each other's kids, Nakiso said.

"They come out here and have children who were born in California, and those values are lost in the shuffle," he said. "The old adage, 'it takes a village to raise a kid,' it's true out there."

The week-long trip was just part of a larger effort by Burlingame, San Bruno and San Mateo police, who have been fighting a recent uptick in Tongan youth crime.

Since last year, police in San Bruno alone say they have seen two dozen incidents involving young Tongans, including fights and drive-by shootings, some involving members of rival gangs.

Unlike San Mateo and San Bruno, Burlingame has very few Tongans but receives some fallout from its neighbors. Last weekend, fights erupted at a Tongan party held at a Burlingame social hall, and police asked for help from neighboring agencies to deal with the large crowd.

Nakiso and Phillips, whose trips were paid for by community donations, traveled with Emile Hons, a San Bruno resident who had lived in Tonga when he was in the Peace Corps during the 1970s.

The officers seemed to soak up a real appreciation for the culture, the people and the beauty of the island, according to Hons, who said little has changed there since his Peace Corps days.

"People have asked, 'What's Tonga like?"' he said. "It's not like Hawaii, it's not like Tahiti. You have to experience it.

"It seems like a lot of the kids who are causing problems have never been to Tonga, but they (burst) with pride at being Tongan. These officers have been there."

Phillips said the Tongan people were shocked and embarrassed to hear about the trouble the youths had been getting into.

"Tongan males and Tongan youth don't act like this in Tonga," he said. "Crime is just something that is not in their vocabulary."

While youth in Tonga are free of some of the bad influences kids face in San Mateo County, Nakiso and Phillips said they did notice graffiti from a gang active back home and were able to decipher it for Tongan police.

Phillips, an officer of 18 years, said he was impressed with how modern the local police department is — from Dell computers to its connection with Interpol, the largest international police organization in the world.

Now, Tongan police are talking about sending some of their representatives to tour the Bay Area.

"Hopefully, with all these agencies working cooperatively, we're going to figure this out," Phillips said.

Staff writer Amy Yarbrough covers police and public safety. She can be reached at (650) 348-4339 or ayarbrough@sanmateocountytimes.com.