'Enforcement with a smile' Officer finds speaking residents' language makes policing work

March 10, 1998|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Armando Gomez and Winson Zano had just finished downing a few beers in an Upper Fells Point bar and were hanging on the street, adding boisterous revelry to a small, but growing crowd on South Broadway.

Officer Joao R. Alencar, the Baltimore Police Department's first liaison with the city's growing Hispanic community, politely explained the rules: No loitering within 50 feet of a liquor establishment.

He told them in Spanish.

Though Gomez and Zano have lived in the Baltimore area several years and speak reasonably good English, they appreciated the brief interaction with someone who speaks their native language.

Another officer, Gomez said, would not have been able to articulate the law in such an understanding way. "A lot of problems are because of miscommunication," said Gomez, 24, who lives in Columbia and was born in Mexico.

When Alencar, 48, is not performing traditional police duties, he is busy attending community meetings, church services and helping immigrants -- both new and old -- adust to life in Southeast Baltimore, which he has dubbed a "little United Nations."

"I feel like I'm running for office," joked Alencar, a Brazilian-American whose native language is Portuguese, not Spanish. "They just haven't told me what for."

It is difficult to determine how many Hispanics live in Baltimore, primarily in Upper Fells Point with its diverse ethnic food stores and restaurants.

The 1990 census counted 7,602 people who identified themselves as Hispanic but counted more than 12,000 people who lived in homes where Spanish was the primary language. Community activists estimate between 12,000 and 20,000 Hispanics live in Southeast Baltimore.

The diversity has led to some unique problems for police. It is not uncommon in Central American countries for people to stand outside on street corners and sometimes drink alcohol in public. That is not allowed in Baltimore.

And, Alencar said, many of the immigrants do not like dealing with authority. In their home countries, police can mean oppression and can be equated with the army. Many are scared of bureaucracy, especially the courts.

"People are afraid to report crime, whether they are the victims or the witnesses," said the Rev. John Lavin, pastor of St. Michael the Archangel on South Broadway, one of the few churches in the Baltimore area that offers Masses in Spanish.

"How can you build up your community when there are concerns of public safety?" Lavin asked during a meeting last week with Alencar in the 150-year-old church. "The police officer is basically your friend. That is the tradi- tional way of looking at a police department in a big city like this. Officer Alencar has the ability to help this community have a better understanding of police."

Alencar, who spent 20 years in the Army before joining the city force 2 1/2 years ago, started his new job last month. A stocky man who looks every bit the Army veteran, he had patrolled the midnight shift before becoming a neighborhood services officer.

"I used to do enforcement," he said, watching a patrol car speed by on Bank Street, its lights blazing and siren wailing. "Now I do enforcement with a smile."

Alencar, who learned Spanish in New York soon after he moved to the United States, decided to join the force after he retired from the Army. He had served a dozen years in Germany and Korea. He was stationed in Saudia Arabia during the Persian Gulf war, where he was a nuclear-chemical warfare specialist.

He later went to New Jersey, Texas and Aberdeen, where he ended his military career doing intelligence work. He was 45 when he joined the city's police force, becoming one of the department's oldest rookies.

Assigned to patrol in Southeast Baltimore, he quickly became popular among Hispanics. He once was only one of two officers in the 3,200-member department who were fluent in Spanish. Now, the Southeastern District has at least one working on every shift.

He has an office at the Southeastern Neighborhood Service Center on South Broadway and often spends his day meeting and greeting people, talking at schools and trying to build a trust so the city's new immigrants feel they can use the police the way everyone else does.

"We need someone who can speak Spanish down here," said Jose Gonzalez, 22, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who manages the National Latino American Grocery on Pratt Street at Broadway, where Alencar can find his Natural Fruit Guarana, a fruit drink from Brazil.

Next door is Ricardo Mibil, 43, who was born in Guatemala and has been in the United States for 23 years, the last six in Baltimore. He runs Acapulco, a music and video store that advertises "Casetes, C.D.'s, and Peliculas" [films].

"It's getting better," said Mibil, looking out his window and noting that he sees less trash and fewer boarded buildings. The community is trying to entice some large Hispanic-run companies, such as a bank, to the area.

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