Does it strike you as strange that the D.C. police department has had to go as far afield as Puerto Rico to recruit Hispanic officers? In a city with a large and growing Spanish-speaking community and a startlingly high unemployment rate among the young, are there not enough recruits, if not in the city then in the metropolitan area?
On Monday, the police department will swear in a new class of recruits who will begin training immediately. In this group are dozens of Puerto Rican residents who have been persuaded to leave that island to work in the nation's capital. Until they are sworn in, the department inexplicably refuses to answer any questions about them except to confirm that they have already passed a civil service test, speak English as well as Spanish and are badly needed in this city.
Efforts have been made before to recruit Spanish speakers closer to home. The department pays the tuition of officers who wish to learn the language by taking college courses. Why, then, has the city been unsuccessful in recruiting Hispanic officers? Part of the reason is that many local residents are not yet citizens; and others come from places where the police are viewed as oppressors and young men and women have a cultural bias against joining their ranks.
Officer Gary Hankins, who heads the labor committee of the Fraternal Order of Police, has another explanation. Area residents, he says, know very well the difficulty of living in the District of Columbia on a $20,000-a-year salary, and it is the city's residence requirement for the police that hinders recruitment. Young people in Puerto Rico are less likely to be familiar with the housing situation here, and to them the salary is the draw.
Officer Hankins claims, furthermore, that about half the people who complete the police academy and join the force leave within two years. Most of them continue to work as peace officers, but they join one of the federal forces or one of the suburban departments because they can no longer afford to live decently in the city.
We believe it is important for elected officials and the leaders of city government to reside here. But the justification for imposing the rule on lower-paid civil servants is less clear. It will be instructive to watch the progress of these new Puerto Rican recruits and to learn how many of them, if any, may have left the department two years from now because of the residence requirement. The Fraternal Order of Police will be watching the numbers. So should the city government.