Every hot summer afternoon in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood, many of the Latinos who live in the area gather at Community Park West to play softball and drink beer underneath the locust trees in the outfield.
The only place to park near the ball field, which is essentially a vacant lot sandwiched behind ramshackle row houses on Calvert Street and Adams Mills Road, is in the alley that runs alongside left field. Inevitably, it is soon completely blocked with cars.
That was the setting one evening last June when D.C. police officer Wanda Francis told a spectator named Fernando to move his car, thereby triggering an incident that has since prompted police to make a major effort to hire qualified Latino policemen.
Fernando, who didn't speak much English at the time, did not seem to understand what he was being told to do, anyway, he said in Spanish, it was not his car.
Officer Francis does not under Spanish and tempers began to rise. Since she was a woman, some police suggest that maybe Latino "machismo" played a part in the scene as well.
People started wandering over from the ball game - including friends of Fernando - and there was a lot of shouting, mostly in Spanish. ("When you're in your own ballpark," as one policeman put, "you speak your own language.")
Before long there was quite a crowd and Officer Francise sent out a distress call. Several more police arrived on the scene. Hancuffs were brought out. Billy clubs were brandished.
"It was a real donnybrook," remembered Lt. Thomas Giles of the 3rd District. "It resulted in a number of arrests and some injuries."
"The thing boiled down to an understanding of culture versus an understanding of police needs," Giles said.
In Washington the tension between Hispanic and Anglo cultures often translates into a conflict between the Latino community and the police. Officers on the beat frequently find themselves caught in the middle trying to enforcelaws Latinos either do not comprehend or choose to ignore.
Latinos, on the other hand, often mistrust the police. One Salvadoran recently was beaten and robbed of $82 on Columbia Road, he said, and when a friend took him to a policeman the officer expressed doubt that he could have been carrying $82. Again, there was the language barrier, and the Salvadoran finally went for medical help without filing a complaint. "The more I talk to the police the more in trouble I get," he told a friend.
Many Latinos who are in the United States without proper documentation also fear that the police will have them deported even if they are the victims and the perpetrators of a der orders not to ask for "green crime. The Washington police are uncards" or visas, but stories persist in the Hispanic community saying that individual policemen have demanded to see immigration papers.
In the tiny storefront police community centers at 3247 Mount Pleasant St. and 2455 18th St. N.W., some of the few Spanish-speaking and Latino policemen - there are 22 Latinos on the city force of 4,000 - find that despite all their efforts to reach the community many crimes still go unreported.
"A lot of problems the Latino community has with the police," said Officer Wilson S. Barreto of the 18th Street center, "come because they are used to police being part of an oppressive government."
The recruiting drive now underway is the first in three years, and police officials hope that if enough Latinos join the force some of these problems can be solved.
But the search for qualified Hispanic applicants has not been particularly successful thus far. Of the 950 applications filed between May 4 and 11, according to recruiting officers, only about 30 were Latinos. Of the total number, police say they expect only about one out of every seven to pass all the requirements and be appointed to enforce with a starting salary of $13,799 a year.
"A quater to half fail the civil service test," said Lt. Charles Bacon of the recruiting office. "The physical requirements lose more and backgrounds checks knock out others."
There is also a requirement that applicants be United States citizens, a requirement Bacon said many Latinos in the area are unable to fill.
Applications for approximately 70 openings will be accepted again between June 16 and 30, according to Bacon, who said recruiters would "really go out and beat the bushes" to attract Latinos.
In the midst of so many cultural conflicts, however, even some of those already on the force find themselves in a difficult position.
"It's very hard for a Spanish officer in this capacity to walk the fence," said one. "We're supposed to be here for the community - to get involved, and yet have the best interest of the police department in mind, too. We're not supposed to take sides. But we're Spanish, you know. It's hard."