Police expand hiring efforts

Officials to travel to Puerto Rico to recruit bilingual candidates

May 23, 2006|By GUS G. SENTEMENTES | GUS G. SENTEMENTES,SUN REPORTER

In a push to hire more bilingual officers who can communicate with the city's growing Hispanic community, the Baltimore Police Department is planning a weeklong recruiting mission to Puerto Rico next month.

Police officials say they've begun advertising in newspapers and hanging banners in the streets of the Caribbean island in an effort to lure potential recruits. Officers expect to meet with hundreds of candidates, and conduct interviews and testing during the trip, which starts June 4.

Maj. Edward Schmitt, director of personnel, said the excursion is meant for the department to keep pace with the demographic changes affecting the city. Hispanics are the country's fastest-growing demographic group and, since the 1990s, have increased their presence in Baltimore.

The latest government figures estimate the city's Hispanic population at more than 11,000, with several city neighborhoods continuing to see an influx of Spanish-speaking residents.

"Just take a ride through the Southeastern District," Schmitt said, referring to areas in Canton and Fells Point, "and see the changes in the last several years. It's drastically changed."

Police officials said the recruiting effort for more Spanish speakers is part of a larger blitz the department is making this year to fill gaps in its ranks. Baltimore, like many law enforcement agencies across the country, is struggling with officer shortages because of a favorable economy and military commitments overseas that have siphoned people from law enforcement jobs, according to police officials and law enforcement experts.

Prosecutors and the city court system have also taken steps to deal with the influx of cases involving Spanish-speaking victims and defendants, said Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the city state's attorney's office.

She said prosecutors must file requests for interpreters in court cases as early as possible so they can be scheduled. And court documents and news releases are translated into Spanish as needed.

"We definitely recognize there's a need within the entire criminal justice system," Burns said.

For the past several months, the city Police Department has been dealing with well-publicized shortages of about 130 officers in patrol, plus 100 or more unfilled slots because of medical leave, suspension or military deployment.

The department is authorized to employ 3,200 sworn officers, but its current number is just below 3,000, police figures show.

Schmitt said Puerto Rico is a natural recruiting ground for future police officers because many island residents speak English and Spanish, and they are U.S. citizens.

Baltimore can also lure Puerto Rican applicants with higher pay: The department's starting salary is $37,000, compared with $25,000 for a starting job in a Puerto Rican police agency, Schmitt said.

Schmitt said that the department does recruiting in the Baltimore area for Spanish-speaking officers. But, he said, going to Puerto Rico gives it access to a deeper pool of applicants who speak fluent English and Spanish.

Other police departments have taken trips to the island to recruit officers, including Washington's Metropolitan Police Department.

There are about 100 officers of Hispanic background in the city Police Department's ranks.

Latino community advocates insist the department needs more officers to serve Baltimore's burgeoning immigrant population, which includes illegal immigrants who tend to be distrustful of police and reluctant to report crimes.

Jeanne Velez, director of Assisi House of St. Patrick's Church, which does outreach into Baltimore's Hispanic community, called the plan "fantastic."

Velez said many Latino immigrants in the Fells Point area will often call her to report a crime before they will go to the police, because of the language barrier and a general lack of trust of authorities. "This will help tremendously," she said.

In recent meetings with Police Department officials, Velez said, she suggested the department try to attract officers closer to home with advertisements in Spanish-language newspapers and the popular Spanish-radio station WLZL-FM "El Zol."

"Within the last year, we have made fantastic strides," she said. "There has just been a tremendous openness on behalf of the Police Department to deal with this, but there's more to do. If any major city is going to strive for public safety, they need to deal with this linguistic barrier. They need to deal with the cultural differences."

The hope is to recruit as many as 40 officers, or roughly a full police academy class, from Puerto Rico, Schmitt said. The recruiting will involve giving potential applicants the same civil service and physical agility tests that applicants are required to take in Baltimore.

Interviews and polygraph testing will also be conducted at two universities where the recruiting will take place, police said.

Baltimore officials traveled to Puerto Rico on a three-day recruiting trip three years ago, with limited results, Schmitt said.

The difference this time, he said, is that recruiters have done more advance planning and marketing on the island to build interest in applying to Baltimore's Police Department. He said more than 100 people in Puerto Rico have called the Police Department expressing interest in applying for officer jobs.

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Kelly Brewington contributed to this article.

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