BRIDGETON, N.J. (AP) – Bridgeton Patrolman Christian Acevedo's visit to the J & M variety store began with a simple "Hola, como estas," which was met with smiles from those inside and led to a conversation with the woman working the counter.
The two spoke in Spanish, and Acevedo left with a request from the woman for extra patrols to watch for some people who were acting suspiciously in her neighborhood.
The 25-year-old Acevedo believes his ability to speak Spanish and his Puerto Rican ancestry made it easier for the woman to ask for help. That's something she might not have done with a non-Hispanic officer who spoke only English and didn't understand Hispanic culture, he said.
"It makes them feel comfortable," Acevedo told The Press of Atlantic City. "It makes a difference."
Law-enforcement agencies are trying to bolster their ranks with officers who speak more than one language, but the effort isn't easy. Hiring in many departments is linked to state Civil Service Commission tests, and it's difficult to get members of various ethnic groups to take the tests and make it through grueling police academy training, law-enforcement officials said.
"The only thing that gets you bumped to the top of the list is military service," said Sgt. Kevin Fair, spokesman for the Police Department in Atlantic City, where residents speak at least 37 different languages. "There is nothing for a bilingual candidate. It would be wonderful to have officers who can communicate in some native languages."
Fair said a quick sampling of Atlantic City's police force turned up eight officers who are fluent in Spanish, one each who is fluent in Bengali, Cantonese and Albanian, and one who is fluent in Bengali, Hindi and Urdu.
The ranks of the State Police include troopers who speak 34 different languages such as Arabic, Mandarin, Polish, Farsi, Hindi, French, Hebrew, Spanish and Portuguese, said State Police Capt. Stephen Jones. Those officers are available to help local departments, he said.
"We are always seeking to have the diversity of our troopers represent the people we serve," he said. "Language ability is considered as a plus in the selection process as we populate new classes, but it is not mandated."
Essentially, a police department's ability to build trust with an ethnic community is difficult "if you literally can't talk to them," said James Anderson, director of the Rand Institute's Justice Policy Program.
"There is a recognition that it's needed," Anderson said. "You need to build ties. I think bilingual officers facilitate those ties, and not just in the Hispanic community.
"It's not some sort of magic bullet, and just having a bilingual officer alone isn't enough to change things overnight," he said. "But it helps, and it helps educate other officers on the force about the cultural norms that other officers aren't aware of and can learn."
The more relaxed interaction between members of various ethnic groups and police is evident as Acevedo walks along Laurel Street past stores with names like Azteca Internacional and Novedades Espinoza. The stores are among many Hispanic businesses that opened during the past several years in downtown Bridgeton, where 44 percent of the population is Hispanic.
There's an easy rapport between Acevedo and those in the stores as they speak Spanish. That relationship is important to Bridgeton merchants like Caesar delaCruz, a 55-year-old Dominican Republic native who operates Cruz Food Market & Deli and speaks little English. Selling lunch to an English-speaking customer during one of Acevedo's visits was accomplished more with hand gestures and facial expressions than with language.
"There is no way I can communicate" in English, delaCruz said, using Acevedo as an interpreter.
Dealing with the Police Department's Spanish-speaking officers made it easier to discuss incidents that occurred at the store he opened in 1997, delaCruz said.
Those officers are especially important as more Hispanics open downtown businesses, he said.
"We need more Hispanic police officers in the area," he said.
Jessica Espinoza works at Novedades Espinoza, a variety store owned by her parents. Espinoza is bilingual, but her parents speak little English.
"It would be easier," Espinoza, a 28-year-old Bridgeton resident, said of having more Spanish-speaking police officers. "My mom could explain what happens."
Acevedo said there are other advantages to being bilingual. One of the biggest involves safety, as an officer can understand what's happening at a crime scene when those nearby are speaking a different language, he said.
Bridgeton Police Chief Michael Gaimari said his department is developing a recruiting program for Bridgeton High School seniors, some of whom will hopefully seek a law-enforcement career in Bridgeton. The program will debut this spring and explain the Civil Service test process, he said.
Gaimari called it an "effort to attract more officers to reflect the demographics of the city." He said nine of his department's police officers, or 15 percent of the force, speak Spanish. He said the department tries to schedule those officers, and two other employees who work in the records department, so a Spanish-speaking person is available at all times.
The Newark-based National Coalition of Latino Officers is working to get more Hispanics to take the Civil Service tests and increase the 20 percent police academy graduation rate for Hispanics, said the organization's president, Antonio Hernandez. That could result in more bilingual officers, he said. The organization wants to move the program into South Jersey, targeting multi-ethnic municipalities such as Atlantic City, he said.