Crowds at recruiting sessions in Puerto Rico are large and eager as Baltimore police seek Spanish-speaking officers
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By GUS G. SENTEMENTES
The Baltimore Sun
Copyright 2006 The Baltimore Sun Company
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- In need of Spanish-speaking officers, Baltimore Police Department recruiters set up shop here at the Rio Piedras campus of Interamericana University.
What they found astonished them: applicants by the hundreds, packing classrooms in the stifling Caribbean heat to listen to the pitches from recruiters while wiping brows dripping with sweat.
Many worked for the government, including local police forces. Some had left their posts and came wearing their uniforms and holstered sidearms, searching for new work and better wages in Baltimore.
The island's economic troubles helped push more than 900 applicants into the arms of Baltimore police recruiters during their weeklong mission last month.
Weeks earlier, the central government had shut down many agencies, temporarily putting about 90,000 civil servants out of work.
So when Alexandra Figueroa, a third-year criminal justice major, learned that she had passed the Baltimore department's civil service test, she couldn't hide her excitement. She did a little dance and shook her head, her long blond hair snapping around her.
"I'm a single mother living in Puerto Rico. If they take me, I'm leaving," said Figueroa, 25. She was raised in the Bronx, N.Y., where she graduated from high school, and returned to Puerto Rico, where she had been born.
In fluent English, she spoke of the prospect of working in Baltimore, probably summing up the feelings of those around her: "It's an opportunity that will not present itself here."
The Baltimore Police Department is not the only agency to come to the island in search of Spanish-speaking officers. Atlanta came here, as did Washington, which hired 35 officers in 2002. Of those, 21 remain on that force. The other 14, said Sgt. Kenneth Harvey of the Washington police, returned home to Puerto Rico mainly because they or their family were homesick.
Baltimore police traveled to Puerto Rico for two reasons. Down 130 officers amid a cutthroat recruiting climate for U.S. law enforcement agencies, the department needs to replenish its ranks. And with the city's Latino population booming, police say, they need more bilingual, Spanish-speaking officers on the streets.
About 450 people came to apply and take tests at the Interamericana University in San Juan. Three days later, the recruiters traveled 60 miles west of the island's capital to the waterfront town of Arecibo, where more than 500 people packed a local community center. More than half of the applicants cleared the department's first hurdle, the civil service test, police said.
The turnout in Puerto Rico overwhelmed recruiters and caused a brief media sensation, which drew even more applicants.
"This is better than even we expected," said Baltimore Officer Rebecca Herrington, one of the recruiters.
At the university in San Juan's Rio Piedras neighborhood, the recruiters divided the applicants into groups of 30 to 45 so that they could squeeze them into classrooms. They briefed the applicants on pay, benefits and the application process.
Baltimore Officer Daniel Santos, who was born in Puerto Rico and emigrated to the United States with his family when he was young, told applicants that they would be expected to speak English on the streets of Baltimore.
If hired, they were told, they would have to complete Baltimore's six-month police academy, regardless of their experience and training. The department would reimburse them $1,000 for the cost of moving.
About one-quarter of the San Juan applicants - a little more than 100 - passed the civil service test and were invited back the next day for a three-hour psychological questionnaire containing more than 800 questions.
On the third day, the applicants who remained converged on Parque Central, a large recreational park in San Juan. There, they had to run 1 1/2 miles in 16 minutes, 28 seconds or less and do 29 sit-ups in 60 seconds as part of the agility test the department requires.
Rey Rivera, a tall, bald man who has worked for the Policia de Puerto Rico for 12 years, passed the civil service test and met the sit-up and running requirements. He has worked on the fugitive task force, bank fraud and a special arrest unit.
"For me, I don't see any career opportunities in Puerto Rico," said Rivera, who recently completed a master's degree in labor relations and has a wife and two children, ages 8 and 5. "In order to get the best of me, I got to move."
He is not alone. Amid talk about reducing the government payroll, said Maria Enchautegui, an economics professor at the University of Puerto Rico, it is no surprise that police, correctional officers and others who aspired to government jobs would seriously consider leaving the island for better opportunities on the U.S. mainland.
"We are at a crossroads," Enchautegui said. "Where are we going to go from here? We're still making that decision, and the political environment is not helping."
At least half of those applying to join the Baltimore police worked for the Policia de Puerto Rico, the island's main police agency, or for smaller municipal police and correctional agencies, the police recruiters said.
Puerto Rican police agencies have grown accustomed to other law enforcement agencies recruiting on their soil.
Puerto Rico's top police official - Pedro Toledo, superintendent of the Policia de Puerto Rico - again found himself defending his agency's efforts to retain police officers.
Toledo, who retired from the FBI after a 25-year career, used to work in Washington and other metropolitan areas in the United States. He warned his officers in public statements that if they left Puerto Rico for Baltimore, their higher pay would be accompanied by a higher cost of living and a life away from their families.
"I warned them they should not only look at salary, but at other conditions," Toledo, 62, said in an interview with The Sun. "Once they take the test and pass the test, I recommend they take a trip there [to Baltimore]. Look at the prices, talk to people, look at the schooling."
Many police officers who applied to go to Baltimore said they deal with homicides, shootings, robberies and narcotics trafficking in Puerto Rico, the same kinds of crimes they would be likely to investigate in Baltimore.
The island had 766 homicides last year, 174 of them in San Juan, a city of about 429,000, according to 2005 government estimates. Elsewhere in the city's metropolitan area, where an additional 409,000 people live, there were 264 homicides. Baltimore, with a population of about 630,000, recorded 269 homicides last year.
Police misconduct in Puerto Rico has been a problem. A thousand officers have been fired for corruption since 1993, Toledo said. In the same period, the average starting pay has nearly tripled, from $775 a month to $2,000 a month, he said.
Officers who work for smaller municipal police agencies earn far less, $12,000 to $13,000 annually. The starting pay for Baltimore police is $37,964.
Zaira Diaz was typical of those who applied. Like her husband, the mother of four, who used to live on the U.S. mainland, is a police officer at San Juan's international airport. Together, they earn about $42,000 a year.
Diaz lives with her husband and four children in Catano, a troubled part of metropolitan San Juan permeated by poverty, public housing projects, drugs and violent crime.
The town is tightly packed with low concrete homes, almost all of which have metal gates and concrete walls surrounding them. Haggard roosters and lean cats roam the streets. Piles of trash are piled in vacant lots. On its fringe is a Bacardi plant, the largest rum distillery in the world and a popular tourist destination.
Diaz, who was named female police officer of the year in 2003, wants out. But she did not pass Baltimore's physical tests. Disconsolate, she walked off the track and collapsed in the shade. Minutes later, she regrouped and joined the other applicants, who were cheering the next group of runners.
She vowed to go to Baltimore in August to retake the tests so that she can give her children a better life. "The reason I'm applying is because of them," Diaz said. "They're worth sacrificing for."
City police said they try to recruit Spanish-speakers in the Baltimore area, but there often isn't a high concentration of applicants.
In recruiting from Puerto Rico, even if hundreds don't make the final cut for Baltimore, the department might still hire enough recruits to fill several academy classes.
"The potential is unbelievable," said Maj. Edward Schmitt, director of personnel.
An academy class usually has about 40 recruits, but recruiters typically screen out hundreds of people to get that class of cadets. The department, which is authorized to have 3,200 officers, has about 130 openings.
Help with adjusting
Schmitt said the department will try to help any new Puerto Rican officers adjust to life in Baltimore, and he doesn't worry that many might leave after few years, as they did in Washington.
The major said many of the applicants are older, more experienced and willing to move for what might be a better life.
"It's a thought-out opportunity; it's not forced on them," Schmitt said. "They're not younger guys."
Recruiters are planning for nearly 70 Puerto Rican applicants to go to Baltimore as part of a four-day initiative starting tomorrow, at which they will finish the application process they began on the island. Another large group is expected to arrive in August.
"Recruiting," said Schmitt, "is an unrelenting effort."
Pitch by Md. police strikes a chord