Enforcing law in 2 languages

As Latino population soars, city looks to Puerto Rico for Spanish-speaking officers

Sun Special Report

A bilingual approach to enforcing law


Brandishing guns and yelling in Spanish, the men barged into La Bahia restaurant on South Newkirk Street and ordered the owner, Maria Mendoza, and others to get on the floor. Her husband, Jose, an immigrant from Honduras, fought back against a man holding a shotgun, grabbing him in a bear hug.

Another man put a gun to Jose Mendoza's head and pulled the trigger. The half-dozen or so robbers disappeared into the night, leaving the man's crumpled body bleeding on the restaurant floor and in the arms of his wife of 13 years.

The killing exemplified a growing problem as Baltimore's Latino community swells, with an increasing number of perpetrators, victims and witnesses to crimes who speak Spanish and little else. And the city's criminal justice system has been struggling to cope.

When an investigator was assigned to the Mendoza killing, there was only one choice -- Juan A. Diaz, a native of Puerto Rico and the only Spanish-speaking homicide detective on the 3,000-member police force.

Two years ago, he was working in drug enforcement, only to be promoted to detective to help investigate the killings of three immigrant children from Mexico.

Now he was called upon again to help track down witnesses and try to persuade them to talk in a community where many are reluctant to deal with the police, sometimes because they are in the country illegally.

"Some are cooperative, some are a little scared," Diaz said of people he encountered in the restaurant killing, which is unsolved. "Because you're talking in their language, they feel more comfortable talking to the police."

Outreach workers estimate that half of the robberies in the immigrant community are not reported because Latinos are afraid to call police. New immigrants are swindled, manipulated and robbed of the cash that they are known to keep in their pockets instead of in banks. Some are victims of more brutal crimes.

Baltimore and its police, said Jeanne Velez, director of Assisi House of St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church in Fells Point, have to adjust to the changing demographics. "You have to think black, white, Latino," she said. "Up to now, it's just been black and white."

The police have decided that they need reinforcements.

Last month, city police embarked on a experiment to recruit officers directly from Puerto Rico. The goal is to increase the number of Spanish-speaking officers and fill the department's depleted ranks at a time when better-paying jobs and military service are luring potential hires elsewhere.

Six recruiters flew to Puerto Rico in hopes of luring bilingual applicants from an island that has its own troubles with violent crime, corruption and hard economic times. A group of applicants is to arrive in Baltimore this week for more testing Friday.

Those who are hired will join a force that has about 100 officers who speak Spanish. It used to be enough. A few years ago, the department prided itself on having one or two Spanish-speaking officers in the Southeast District.

Now, police struggle to make sure they have one or more on every shift. Some bilingual officers say they can spend several hours a week away from their beats serving as translators for colleagues.

For Baltimore's Police Department, the push for more Spanish-speaking officers is an acknowledgement of the new urban landscape. Police and residents hope that an influx of Spanish-speaking officers who can navigate the cultural nuances of the city's Latino community would be better able to help Baltimore's new and vulnerable immigrants.

The city's Latinos, who got their foothold in Fells Point decades ago, have turned parts of Southeast Baltimore into enclaves for immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and other Central and South American countries.

The population has expanded rapidly in recent years into neighborhoods around Patterson Park, Highlandtown and Greektown. More Latinos also are moving into parts of Northwest Baltimore.

Official government estimates put the city's Latino population at about 12,000, but undocumented immigrants could account for tens of thousands more, community observers say.

Commanders in the Southeastern Police District have taken Spanish classes, and officers are again using a once-closed substation in Fells Point, in the heart of the Latino community.

Forms in English and Spanish are being made available to residents who wish to report crime without identifying themselves.

Monthly meetings

Police in the Southeastern District are also holding monthly meetings at which Latino residents and others question police and receive safety tips and warnings of crime trends.

"They come up here, and they believe that police are as corrupt and dishonest as they are in their home countries," said Maj. Michael T. Kundrat, commander of the Southeastern District. "That's something that we've been trying to work on with them."

People who live and run businesses in the community have concerns.

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