Two District police officers packed their bags and left yesterday for San Juan, P.R., on official business.

But they were not in search of escaped felons or a good tan. Accompanied by a city personnel official, they were, instead, part of a week-long recruiting expedition that police officials and leaders in the city's Hispanic community said they hope will increase the ranks of Spanish-speaking officers in the police department.

Assistant Police Chief Carl V. Profater, who is in charge of administrative services for the department, said the rapidly growing number of Spanish-speaking district residents, particularly in the Adams-Morgan area, has increased the demand for officers who are familiar with the language and customs of the Hispanic community.

Among the District's 3,880 police officers, 45 are Hispanic, and at least 20 others speak Spanish. Profater said it is often difficult to find a Spanish-speaking officer on duty.

"If an individual doesn't speak English, we have to find an officer who is bilingual; that's not always easy," he said. "We can't train all of our officers to speak Spanish, and even if we did, they may not understand the culture."

Profater said previous attempts to recruit Hispanic candidates within the District met with limited success because many of the applicants did not meet the citizenship requirement.

"I have been told that a lot of the Hispanic applicants are first-generation . . . immigrants and are just not eligible. When you are looking for a a certain pool of individuals, you have to go where that pool is."

Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, citizenship would not be an obstacle, Profater said.

Profater also said many Hispanic residents "have a negative view of the police department because the police in their countries are often seen as repressive."

Profater added that, although this is the first trip to Puerto Rico, it is not unusual for the police department to travel to other parts of the country in search of applicants.

In the last year, police recruiters have traveled to Connecticut, Philadelphia and New York. Profater said he does not know the total amount the department has spent on recruiting trips, but that the most recent trip to New York and the visit to San Juan will cost an estimated $2,500.

Profater said the two police recruiters had been in contact with radio stations, newspapers, grass-roots organizations and community leaders in San Juan. They also were to visit schools and universities and employment centers in search of eligible applicants.

Mia Cara, news director for local Spanish-language station WMDO-AM, said she supports the trip, but said there are often other reasons that Hispanic residents are reluctant to join the police department.

"Anyone who has the education and all the other requirements is probably going to be looking for a better job. In most Latin American countries, a police officer is a very low position."

Profater said no other out-of-town trips are planned for this year, but the police department plans to hold a recruiting drive Saturday featuring Spanish musicians in a park at 18th Street and Columbia Road NW in Adams-Morgan.