They came down Mun~oz Rivera Avenue by the dozens, then the hundreds. On police motorcycles from San Juan, in cruisers from Hato Rey and a few in their own cars, Puerto Rican police officers clamoring to join the D.C. police department filled the parking lot and rushed to show their badges, their health records and their stacks of commendations and college transcripts.

"We were completely surprised and, frankly, a little worried about all the officers coming in the cruisers, parking them outside during this three-hour process," said Bert Ennis, head of recruiting for the D.C. police, who orchestrated a five-day trip to Puerto Rico in March. "We had long lines of applicants. This never happened to us before."

D.C. police have long been criticized for having so few Hispanic officers -- and have been frustrated in their attempts to recruit more. In 1994, when the U.S. Department of Justice began investigating the city's hiring and promotion of Hispanic officers, there were 173 on the force. Today, after lawsuits, federal mandates and recruitment drives in Puerto Rico, Texas and California, that number has barely changed: It now stands at 179.

But recruiters tried a new approach in Puerto Rico this spring and had a resoundingly successful drive. By working with the island government, offering on-the-spot competency tests and targeting older, established officers, D.C. police signed up 60 recruits, an infusion that will significantly change the makeup of a police force that has struggled to reflect the community it patrols.

"This new group that will come in August will greatly enhance our ability to reflect our community," said D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey. "Granted, these officers are from Puerto Rico and most of our Hispanic population in the District is from Central America, but at least it's a start. And we'll have less of a language barrier."

A key element of the recruiting drive this year was making it easier for candidates. In the past, Ennis said, recruiters advertised in one or two Puerto Rican papers and handed out fliers at a hotel, hoping people would be interested enough to pay their way to the District to take the three-hour application test. That would be followed by one or two more plane trips, again at the candidate's expense, to take a physical agility test, then a medical test.

"It was a process that was very difficult on the candidates," Ennis said. This time, the Puerto Rican government let him use space in Department of Labor buildings in the cities of Ponce, San Juan and Mayaguez. The recruiters brought all the materials necessary for the 32-page application test and gave specific instructions in ads for what applicants had to bring. The response was enthusiastic.

"In San Juan, we were literally overrun," Ennis said.

Recent D.C. legislation improved the police department's ability to hire officers from other forces by giving experienced officers some seniority in rank and pay when they join the force instead of making them start at the bottom.

"The average officer who applied has eight years' experience, and almost all the applicants were college graduates," Ennis said. "We have a rich mix of experience coming here. We have a helicopter pilot, a canine officer, some tactical officers."

The attraction for many officers is simple: money. The average salary in Puerto Rico for an officer with 10 years of experience is $18,000. In Washington, many of them will start at $40,000, Ennis said. Also, the souring Puerto Rican economy gives the District a distinct edge, especially for officers with families to support.

After being tested on their math, reasoning and reading skills, the recruits took English and Spanish competency exams. Once the tests were scored and the field was narrowed, Ennis and D.C. officers went to departments all over the island and asked to see the candidates' personnel files.

"I was very pleased with the candor of the departments," Ennis said. "They don't want bad officers coming here and embarrassing Puerto Rico."

Three groups of 15 Puerto Rican officers will come to the District starting in August for a special 14-week training session at the police academy. About 15 more recruits will come in the fall after more lengthy background checks. D.C. police will now give the department's test in Puerto Rico on a quarterly basis.

"This time, there will be a steady stream of applicants," Ramsey said. "This isn't just bringing over a bunch of officers, then forgetting about it for 10 years."

The challenge will be to help the officers make a smooth transition.

"I know moving to another city is enough of a shock, but moving from the island will be a big change," Ramsey said.

To assist the officers personally and professionally, the department's diversity task force is "going to help these officers with real estate, with setting up bank accounts, with schools, with finding jobs for their spouses," said Luis Cardona, a task force member. "This is true recruitment; this is what can make this work."

But having more Spanish-speaking officers isn't enough, some D.C. Hispanic officers say.

"What I want to know, as a Hispanic officer, is how far can I go up in the ranks?" said Master Police Officer Hiram Rosario, head of the Hispanic Police Association in the District. "As a Hispanic man, the farthest I can rise, from what I see, isn't very far."

Rosario, who was recruited from Puerto Rico 13 years ago, said too many Hispanic officers leave the D.C. department for suburban police forces. They are frustrated, he said, that none of the city's seven police commanders is Hispanic and that only one high-ranking officer reflects their heritage.

Sgt. Juan Espinal, a Dominican native who was promoted after a 12-year legal battle with the department, said there also has to be significant outreach to Hispanic communities.

A recent study by the Washington Lawyers Committee showed that the 3rd Police District, which has the city's most concentrated Hispanic population, ranked lowest in customer satisfaction and performance.

Espinal is trying to combat this problem with a weekly half-hour "Ask the Police" radio show on an all-Spanish station.

Ramsey supports the radio program and has encouraged Espinal in other projects. "The effort and support I have seen recently for the Hispanic population by D.C. police is unprecedented," Espinal said.

The chief is also about to post job openings for a new Hispanic liaison unit, which will have a sergeant, two detectives and six officers. Previously, one Spanish-speaking officer served that role in the community.

"This has always been a difficult thing for us -- recruitment, retention, outreach," Ramsey said. "I know it's not enough, what we're doing now, but it's the beginning of a steady stream of change."