23 from Puerto Rico graduate as city police

The Baltimore Sun

They left behind their homes near the beach. Their young children. The ease of speaking in the language of their homeland. Twenty-three men and women left behind their lives in Puerto Rico for the chance to work as police officers in a city many had never heard of - Baltimore.

Yesterday, a class of graduates of the city's police academy - the first with a large group of Puerto Ricans since the department led a recruitment effort on the island last year - received their diplomas in a ceremony that not only acknowledged their service, but celebrated their diversity.

In many ways it was a traditional graduation - a bagpiper played as the class of 41 graduates filed ramrod-straight into a fifth-floor auditorium at police headquarters, an official sang the national anthem and Mayor Sheila Dixon and Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm congratulated their newly minted officers.

And in other ways, it represented a significant cultural advance in the department searching for more Spanish-speaking officers to address a growing Hispanic population and to bolster its understaffed ranks.

Relatives flew to Baltimore from the island and drove in from New York. They waved Puerto Rican flags. The class valedictorian from Sparrows Point ended his remarks - "Dios los bendiga!" - God bless all of you.

Among the graduates from Puerto Rico were a former Army man, a college student, a basketball star, a sales manager and some who already wore a law enforcement badge - all of them brimming with excitement to begin walking their beats, a tradition for rookie officers.

There was Alexandra Figueroa, a single mother of two small children, who was studying criminal justice at a local university near her home in the southeastern coastal city of Juana Diaz when her mother told her about an ad in the local newspaper looking for Baltimore police officers.

"We had to study our butts off," Figueroa said of her work in the academy. "It was fun. But it was extremely difficult."

Her 10 weeks of field training, in which she patrolled the west side of the city with another officer, have given her a feel for the job.

"The Western District is known to be one of the busiest," Figueroa said. "I loved it. I loved it. So every day was something new and different. We had a lot of foot chases. My first day we had a homicide."

Edgardo Mercado, an officer for two years in the northwestern city of Isabela, was honored with the class firearms award with a score of 99.48. As an officer there, he earned $13,500 a year. In Baltimore, he said, he will begin with a salary of $39,100. His father, Francisco Mercado, 67, traveled from Puerto Rico to watch him graduate.

"I am very proud," Francisco Mercado said.

And Heriberto Nieves, 35, a state police officer in Ponce for more than a decade - most recently on a motorcycle detail - has settled his wife, Teresa Gonzalez, and their two children, Luis, 11 and Natalie, 9, in the Harford County community of Edgewood.

"It was hard for both of us, for the kids," Nieves said, of the separation from his family during his training. "But I think it's really worth it."

The class valedictorian, Donald P. Hildebrandt of Sparrows Point, said the class of officers bonded over their cultural differences. The Americans helped some of the Latinos with English; the Latinos taught the Americans words and phrases in Spanish.

"Our class was unique in the fact that we are the first class with a large number of Hispanics and officers from Puerto Rico. Each of us learned from each other's culture, such as 'ay bendito!' - Oh, my goodness," Hildebrandt told the audience during his address.

The department is planning another recruiting mission to Puerto Rico this month, said Deputy Maj. Edward Schmitt, head of the personnel division. This time, it is sending more recruiters - eight rather than six - and spending more time on the island, 11 days instead of one week.

Last year's recruiting mission drew island-wide media coverage, and more than 1,000 applicants flooded two testing sites. Many applicants were police officers on the island. The turnout - fueled by stagnant economic conditions in Puerto Rico - surprised and virtually overwhelmed the Baltimore officers.

Pablo H. Alicea was an officer for 11 years in San Juan. He was known most noticeably around the island as "Super Pablo," for his years of play for National Superior Basketball - Puerto Rico's NBA equivalent. He said Baltimore's homicide count is less than half Puerto Rico's.

Alicea, a former point guard who holds the record for the most three-point shots at 1,167, said there are more than 800 murders a year in Puerto Rico.

"That don't intimidate me," Alicea said.

Angel Santana, 51, the eldest member of the class, was for years a sales manager in Rio Grande.

He called his decision to become a police officer "unfinished business," referring to his efforts in 1979 to join a force in Puerto Rico after a four-year stint in the U.S. Army. He served in the Reserves for 28 years.

During his training in the Southwestern District, Santana had an opportunity to use his language skills, he said, translating the testimony of a witness to a burglary for a detective.


Sun reporter Gus G. Sentementes contributed to this article.

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