When police went to a Silver Spring apartment to settle a fight several weeks ago, they could not understand what all the commotion was about, nor could anyone explain. The people spoke Spanish, but the officers did not.

Montgomery County police did their best to calm things down, and then left. But 10 minutes later a woman from the apartment called Officer Fernando J. Martinez to explain in her native tongue what happened: The apartment had been broken into, and the family was still holding the burglar when police left.

Martinez dispatched another officer to pick up the suspect for questioning in Spanish. In the end, two men were indicted in connection with the burglary, Martinez said.

The incident is reflective of the special role played by Martinez as one of only six Hispanic officers among the 794-member police force in Montgomery County, which has a fast-growing Central American immigrant population estimated at about 45,000.

Martinez, 43, was born and raised in the South Bronx. Son of a Puerto Rican mother and a Spanish father, he not only translates for his fellow officers and for Hispanic residents, but plays a broader role in trying to bridge cultural barriers between police and the immigrant community.

"I'm doing the best I can to help {the Hispanics} out with the police department, and I'm helping the police department," said Martinez, a 12-year police veteran who lives in Gaithersburg with his wife and has three children.

Many Hispanics do not feel comfortable explaining problems to police in English, some do not report crimes because they are illegal aliens, and some fear the police because they are refugees of repressive regimes in which police act as a military force, Martinez said.

"A lot of times, a Hispanic will not speak to anyone else but a Hispanic," said Officer Miguel Marquez, a Hispanic who serves as a recruiter for the county police.

Patrolling the Piney Branch Road and Flower Avenue corridor in Silver Spring and Takoma Park, which is heavily populated by Hispanics and other minorities, Martinez is sometimes like the old-fashioned cop who walks the beat, getting to know the neighborhood and its people.

Martinez performs many functions. He often fields eight to 10 calls per shift from Spanish-speaking residents asking him about immigration laws, late rent disputes, insurance policies, car problems, even their marital difficulties.

"I feel like I'm helping these people out . . . . They don't understand the law, so I interpret it for them," he said. "If they need lawyers, I can also refer them to their choice of Hispanic lawyers."

The police department is trying to recruit more officers like Martinez who can speak Spanish and relate to the Hispanic culture, according to police spokesman Sgt. Harry Geehreng: "We are desiring to round out the department and get officers who can assimilate into the culture of the Hispanic community."

Martinez has been patrolling the same area for most of his 12 years in Montgomery, and by walking parts of his beat he has managed to build a rapport with residents, small-business owners and children, Anglo and Hispanic.

"I do a little more than the ordinary police officer. I get out of the car and I walk," he said, adding that "I feel like I'm helping these people out . . . . They don't understand the law, so I interpret it for them."

-- Officer Fernando J. Martinez

this is the only way to get to know the people.

At the corner of Piney Branch Road and Flower Avenue, he parks his white Chevy cruiser and strolls across the street to say hello to the folks in the county-run liquor store. Then he moves a few doors down to the Flower Deli to chat with the owner and a few of the customers while sipping a Coke. He cuts out the back way through the storeroom and out into an alley littered with broken bottles to see if any of the "unfortunates" -- as Martinez calls them -- are drinking in one of their usual spots back there.

No one is in the alley, so his next stop is the Pacific Seafood market, where he caught a burglar one night trying to steal live lobsters. Martinez goes into the back room to see his "favorite people," the owner's three children, who are happy to see him.

Sometimes, Martinez said, other police officers say he is more of a Hispanic than a policeman, and they misinterpret his role when he translates and intervenes for an immigrant suspect who then "gets off scot-free.".

From the Hispanic community's perspective, Martinez is often seen as the fair-skinned, blue-eyed man in the uniform and is regarded as the enemy at first, he said.

If he ends up locking up the person, then he becomes an enemy, but when he helps out he becomes their good buddy, he said.

"I walk on a very, very thin rope. I'm a police officer and I'm Hispanic," he said. "I think I'm seen as a villain on both sides."

Just before dark on a hot, muggy Tuesday night, Martinez went to the scene of a fender-bender involving a young Asian man and a Hispanic woman in the Quebec Terrace apartment complex parking lot. Dozens of residents, in what Martinez calls Silver Spring's version of a ghetto, went on their porches and into the parking lot to check out the action. "They want to see whose side I'll take," Martinez said. They want to see if it's going to turn out to be a big deal, he added.

But it was not. Martinez explained to the Asian carefully in English that he needed certain information from the woman for insurance purposes and said the same to the woman in Spanish. After handing them some forms, he left.

He spoke Spanish to the woman because it would be easier for her and there would not be any misunderstanding, Martinez said later.

Martinez said the most common problems he encounters are domestic disputes stemming from Hispanic men who abuse their wives and who then resent it when a stranger tells them not to. "We just have to put them in their place," Martinez said.

The police department recognizes the importance of a Hispanic officer's ability to speak Spanish and to relate to cultural aspects of the community, such as machismo, said Geehreng. And with the increasing numbers of Hispanics moving into the county, Montgomery police are stepping up their recruiting efforts for Hispanic officers.

But the department is competing with other jurisdictions seeking Hispanic officers, and it has not had much luck, police officials said.

Montgomery police made a trip to New York City this year, recruiting at places such as the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. But out of 49 Hispanic applicants, only nine attended a testing session, four passed, and only one survived the initial interview, Geehreng said.