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Officer's task is to reach out to Hispanic community


The young woman, an illegal alien who speaks only Spanish, waited four days before calling police to report she had been abducted and raped.

It was the type of case the Baltimore County Police Department had in mind when it created Officer Carlos Selvi's position a year ago.

"She had the sense that nobody was going to care, or do anything for her," Selvi said. "She also was concerned that no one would be able to understand her, and if they did, she'd only get into trouble."

Selvi went to the woman's home and put her at ease by speaking Spanish and assuring her the Police Department cares about those who do not speak English.

"We're not out looking for illegal aliens," he said. "We want people to call us. We need to know what's going on."

As the department's first Hispanic/Latino outreach officer, it is Selvi's job to encourage the growing number of Hispanics in the county to report crimes and come forward as witnesses. Selvi also wants to help Hispanics avoid becoming crime victims and to caution them against committing crime.

But to do that, the 51-year-old native of Argentina said he must establish a presence among Hispanics and prove that he can be trusted.

In about a year on the job, it has been more work than he imagined. His desk in the community resources office of the department is barely visible under mounds of Spanish-language fliers.

"When I came here, I thought, what does a Hispanic outreach officer do?" said Selvi, who previously worked as a patrolman in the Essex precinct for nearly four years.

And now?

"He's really got his hands full," said Sgt. Bruce Myers, commander of the community resources section.

Between 1990 and 2000, the Hispanic and Latino population in the county increased by 69 percent, and in the four succeeding years grew by another 30 percent, according to census figures. As of 2004, about 18,000 Hispanics lived in the county, mostly in the Reisterstown Road area, the census estimated.

But some in government and social services believe that the community is vastly undercounted. And while Hispanics account for slightly more than 2 percent of the county population, the department saw a need for a community liaison.

"As we looked at the precincts, a lot more victims and witnesses spoke only Spanish," Myers said.

The department has only four or five officers who are fluent in Spanish.

Modeled after Hispanic liaison positions elsewhere in the state - including Montgomery and Prince George's counties, and Baltimore and Annapolis - and throughout the nation, Selvi's job encompasses an array of responsibilities.

In addition to reaching out to Hispanics by attending community meetings and visiting communities where many live, Selvi is working with social service organizations, recruiting bilingual officers and volunteers, and analyzing crime trends that affect the Hispanic community.

He has also been involved in more than 20 investigations in recent months - including murder, rape and robbery cases - translating for investigators and helping detectives understand cultural differences.

Hector Torres, former executive director of the Governor's Commission on Hispanic Affairs, said there is a growing need statewide for officers such as Selvi as the Hispanic population swells.

"Throughout the state, pockets are cropping up everywhere," he said, adding that in addition to large enclaves in Prince George's and Montgomery, there are growing Hispanic communities in more rural counties such as Cecil, Harford and Frederick.

"There needs to be a strong line of communication between the police and these communities," Torres said. "That's what these liaisons can do."

Selvi knows what it is like to be a foreigner in a new country. He came to Baltimore from Argentina in 1969 at age 16, and had to learn a new language and culture.

"It was really tough, coming here at that age. Especially dating," Selvi said. "Kids are mean."

He had taken two semesters of English at his high school in Argentina, but he was nowhere near fluent. For several months, he took English classes at night and on Saturdays, in addition to attending high school in the city.

"There was a lot of adjustment I had to do," Selvi said. "But within six months, I was in the thick of things. I had American friends and an American girlfriend."

Though he did not join the police force until age 46, after stints in the Army and working with his father in the family jewelry store, Selvi said he knew from a young age that he wanted to be a police officer.

"In a lot of Latin American countries, sometimes experiences with police officers are not really your best experiences," he said. "I don't want to generalize, but they tend not to be as accountable as the police here."

Selvi's image of the police changed when he moved to Maryland.

"My brother-in-law was an officer in the county, and I met neighborhood cops who drove around, and thought, 'These guys are all right,' " he said.

Those experiences give him a connection with the community he is now working to help.

"I've been in those shoes; they know that," he said.

When Carlos Interiano, a 30-year-old native of a small town in Guatemala, faced assault charges, he had no idea what to do. Selvi called and advised him to retain a lawyer and explained how the court system works.

"He oriented me to the American way," Interiano said in Spanish, adding that many immigrants are reluctant to go to the police because of the language barrier.

"It's hard if you don't speak English well," Interiano said. Since Selvi's call, he has hired a lawyer for his court date, Interiano said.

Since Selvi has been on the job, there has not been a surge in Hispanics reporting crimes, he said.

For now, he is reaching out - telling Hispanics what to do if they are stopped by police, and giving them advice on how to avoid being crime victims.

For example, he said, many immigrants do not have bank accounts. When they get paid, they often carry cash and are easy robbery targets. So Selvi has been advising employers and workers about a payroll card system through which paychecks are electronically deposited and workers have access to their money with a debit card, even if they do not have a bank account.

Besides giving information and advice, he is meeting as many people as he can.

"Right now, I'm trying to make sure people know we're here to help them," Selvi said. "That's going to be the seed for them to slowly trust us so they can talk to us about crime."

Sun staff writer Jason Song contributed to this article.

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