Eight Puerto Ricans were asleep in the blue van parked on 18th Street when the police officer went over to investigate.
They were migrant farmworkers who spoke very little English, and they told the officer they were on their way to Florida. But the money had run out and they were now stone broke. Neither the three adults nor five children had had anything to eat in the previous two days.
Faced with an open-and-shut case of vagrancy, the muscular, nine-year veteran of the D.C. police force swung into action. Within three hours, he collected $119 from the residents of the Adams-Morgan neighborhood, bought the family lunch and groceries and sent them on their way.
The officer's name is Rafael Alaniz. He works in a store-front police community center at 2455 18th St. NW. Barely large enough to hold two metal desks and a soft drink machine, the office doesn't look like much. But Latin American community leaders say the office, open during normal business hours, is one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal picture of relations between Washington's Hispanics and the police.
Luis Rumbaut of Ayuda (Help), a consumer protection and legal aid agency in Adams-Morgan, said police-Hispanic relations "leave a lot to be desired. But it's my impression there is a small group of officers and their directors who are concerned about the problem." Although he was critical of the department in general, he singled out Alaniz and his partner, Wilson Barreto, as officers "concerned to the point of getting involved in the community."
Alaniz, 32, said he and Barreto, 27, "handle criminal matters but we handle a lot of civil and consumer affairs as well."
The officers say they might deal one moment with the victim of an assault and the next moment find that the office is swamped with the children from a nearby care center who want Alaniz to take them swimming.
Sgt. Daniel Flores, 36, coordinator of the police force relations with the Latin American community, said the office deals with about 100 people a month.
Washington's Hispanic community is only five to 10 years old. Its residents come from many different countries and Sonia Gutierrez, chairman of a council of 18 Hispanic community agency, estimates 60 percent of them speak little or no English. Sometimes residents are simply confused by the U.S. way of life.
"People here don't realize laws may be different from their own countries," said Barreto. "I had a Brazilian client complain that she'd been playing the numbers and the man wouldn't give her her money." She wanted Barreto to collect her winnings for her.
Barreto said another incideent involved a man whose son had been arrested for soliciting a prostitute.
"He was from El Salvador," Barreto said. "He couldn't understand why his son should be locked up for something like that."
People new to this country and unable to speak English seem to face special harassment in dealing with landlords and bill collectors, according to police and Hispanic community leaders. Alaniz said that if a man who speaks only Spanish has a complaint," A company will delay and delay, thinking he'll give up and forget about it. They think they'll save money that way and they're right.
Alaniz recently handled the case of a woman who left her house with a load of furniture only to return home to find the locks had been changed on her apartment. She had a deposit down and two weeks to go before the rent was due.
Alaniz talked to a representative of the building owners.
"It was unbelievable," he said. "The man said Hispanics have a habit of letting other people take over their apartments and the custodian has orders to change the locks whenever he sees anybody moving."
Barreto said the idea behind the office is summed up in a Justice Department handbook on police-community relations. "When the police department is believed to be honest, fair and helpful," he read, "then the task of law enforcement is greatly simplified."
The task of law enforcement in the Latin American community has never been simple. "We have had tremendous problems with the police," Gutierrez said. "Not just because of the language problem, but because of cultural differences."
Community leaders say that due to experiences in their native countries, many Latin Americans react to policeman as if they were an arm of a military dictatorship.
Flores said police tend to treat people who do not speak English "as if they were not intelligent or as if they were deaf. They think the louder they get, the more they will be understood."
Gutierrez said crime is higher in Hispanic neighborhoods because criminals know it will go unreported by people who either do not speak English or who have no visas - green cards - and fear they will be turned over to immigration authorities.
Police have instructions to ask for green cards only when investigating after an arrest, but community leaders say abuses persist.
Neither of the two men at the community office could be accused of insensitivity toward Latin culture. Barreto is half Brazilian and half Puerto Rican. He said he is a Brooklyn native familiar with overcrowded apartments and urban minority life.
Alaniz and Flores both grew up in southern Texas, where teachers used to punish Mexican-American children for speaking Spanish during recess and where lack of opportunity drove many Chicanos into the migrant labor force.
Alaniz said D.C. Hispanics "have never been subject to the kind of discrimination we had in Texas. They're not looked own on. The thing they lack is communications."
Rumbaut, Gutierrez and others indicated a major complaint of the community is the few Hispanics members of the police department. According to police department figures, 22 of the 4,000-member police department are Hispanics. No figures were available on the number of bilingual officers on the force, although officers in the 3rd and 4th districts sometimes enroll in Spanish courses.
Community leaders estimate the Hispanic community may number 15,000 in the metropolitan area, although 1970 census figures say the population is 50,000. Flores is heading a recuitment drive for moer Hispanic and bilingual officers. Gutierrez said she believes his recent appointment as liaison between the police and Hispanic community shows the department "i beginning to act in good faith."
But when interviewed by telephone at his Ayuda office, Rumbaut said he was at that moment talking to a Spanish-speaking client who had been involved in a traffic accident. Rumbaut said the man asked for somebody to translate but the investigating officer said it wasn't necessary - and gave the Hispanic the ticket.
"A handful of concerned officers are just not enough," Rumbaut said. "There are too many encounters on the streets."