U.S. at best when citizens complain, officials respond


AMERICA IT WAS. America in all its squabbling and its hurt and its bruised feelings, and it was beautiful to see. America with its white police, and its black state's attorney, and its Latino community in Baltimore reaching across barriers in a library where everybody could watch it happen.

America with Felix Guevara, 48, formerly of El Salvador, sitting there Thursday night waiting for translation into Spanish, and with Hector Portillo, 23, also formerly of El Salvador, also waiting for translation, and explanations arriving in two languages, and in a state of calm.

No, it was explained, this is not how it works in America. No, it was explained, this is not Central America, where the police arrive at homes in the dark of night and people are taken away and never seen again.

This is the United States, and the city of Baltimore, where the police are expected to obey the same laws as everyone else.

"Yes," Portillo said through an interpreter when it was finished. "I am comforted by tonight."

"No," Guevara added through the interpreter, "I know all police are not to blame for the actions of one."

Thursday night restored some feelings of good will for both men. On Dec. 13, says Portillo, he was stopped on the street by a uniformed patrol officer and robbed of $500. Two weeks later, says Guevara, he was detained by a uniformed patrol officer, ordered to hand over his residency papers and then robbed of $300.

Police say neither man was suspected of wrongdoing when detained. They also say the officer, a six-year veteran out of Southeastern District, resigned immediately after the two men filed complaints.

But many in the city's growing Latino community asked why the officer wasn't immediately arrested. They were suspicious of the closed-door grand jury process investigating the charges, and they figured the officer's quick resignation looked like an old-boy network fix: "If you quit right away and take the pressure off the department, we'll shuffle some papers and see that this case gets lost."

And all these suspicions, and the echoes of a former way of life with bullying police, prompted Thursday night's packed gathering at the Enoch Pratt Free Library branch at North Broadway and Orleans Street.

It looked like America, and it was lovely to see.

It was America in two languages, and a variety of skin tones, and in a moment that was ripe for contentiousness, it brought out the best of people instead.

"This meeting is a message," Angelo Solera said as the big crowd gathered. Solera, a native of Spain, now vice chairman of the Mayor's Committee on Hispanic Affairs, added, "It's a message that says we're not going to take this, that if you think we don't speak English and we won't tell anyone, you're wrong.

"We know all police aren't like this. Some police have said to me, 'We're ashamed.' We know this. But we are talking about people traumatized by government in Central America, people who wait for the knock on the door by police. This is not supposed to happen in America."

The police know this and seemed genuinely embarrassed.

"As embarrassed and as much outraged by this accusation as the community," said Maj. George L. Klein Jr., the new commander of the Southeastern Police District. "There's no type of cover-up here."

Painstakingly, Klein and State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy explained the legal process, the need for careful investigation and the need to proceed out of public view before an arrest can be made.

But Klein went further, went into places of the heart beyond legalities, because he knew that a community's fears go deeper than the machinations of law.

"Like you," he said, "I was raised, if you do wrong, you get punished. We sympathize with your community. A lot of you come from places where the police knock on the door and people aren't seen again.

"I can't comprehend such a thing. My officers are troubled by this case. They've been talking to me. We've worked hard to establish partnerships with your community, and we're as embarrassed as you. But there is a process to be followed, and this is not going to be a cover-up."

As Klein's words were translated into Spanish, there sat Felix Guevara, in a baseball cap, smiling at what he was hearing. And near him was young Hector Portillo, with a brush haircut and leather jacket, nodding his head.

The system isn't perfect. Not the police system, nor the courts. The melting pot's an experiment in progress. We're constantly learning to get along with each other, to hold on to pieces of the old ways while absorbing the new, which invigorates the whole country.

But Thursday night at the Broadway branch of the Pratt library felt nice. Somebody should have taped it and sent it to civics classrooms. It was a city talking out its sensitivities, reaching across its various ethnicities and promising to do better, and it felt like America is supposed to feel.

Pub Date: 1/10/99

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