The Baltimore Police Department is sending nearly a dozen officials to Puerto Rico this summer to recruit bilingual officers — a twofold effort to reduce vacancies and improve communication with the city's growing Hispanic population.
The recruiting trip, for which the Board of Estimates approved more than $20,000 in funding Wednesday, will send 11 police personnel to the Caribbean island between June 19 and June 30.
The funding will cover travel, lodging and other incidental expenses for the officers, as well as an ongoing public relations and media campaign on the island, officials said. The funding for the trip will come from asset forfeitures.
As of last month, the city's police force had about 2,300 active members and 284 vacancies. In the last year, departures have far outpaced new hires, despite increased recruiting efforts.
Through the first five months of this year, the department has had some success in attracting minority applicants in general and Hispanic applicants specifically, though it is unclear how many of those recruits speak Spanish.
The department had 77 Hispanic men and 17 Hispanic women apply to be on the force during that time period, respectively, representing large increases over the same period last year, according to Maj. James Handley, who was put in charge of police recruiting in January and is one of the 11 officials going to Puerto Rico.
However, on average, only 5 to 7 percent of local applicants are deemed qualified to become officers after the department runs background checks, and the department has not been able to meet its recruitment needs locally, Handley said. It has sought to expand its net as a result.
Based on its early media blitz on the island, some 1,400 applicants have already pre-registered to take civil service and agility tests when the Baltimore team is on the island, Handley said. If they pass both, they will be have to submit to background checks.
Recruiting officers who can speak fluent English and Spanish also has been a priority of the department for years, as the city's Hispanic population has grown — particularly in the the Southeastern and Southern districts. City officials have championed that growth, with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake vowing to increase the city's population with new immigrant families and signing an executive order in 2012 that prohibits city employees, including police, from asking about immigration status.
Between 2000 and 2010, Baltimore's immigrant population grew from about 30,000 to about 45,000 residents, many of them from Latin America, according to a 2014 city report on the trend. Officials say the growth has only continued since. According to 2014 Census data, there were 27,751 Hispanic or Latino residents in Baltimore, representing about 4.5 percent of the city's population.
The police department's recruiting trip to Puerto Rico this summer will not be its first.
A similar trip was made in 2006, leading to a 41-member graduating recruit class the following year that included 23 Puerto Ricans. Some of those Puerto Rican recruits had previous law enforcement experience.
Handley said that trip has had a "residual effect" ever since, driving applications from the island, and he expects this summer's trip will have the same effect moving forward.
He said the current recruiting efforts have focused on local universities, not on existing law enforcement on the island.
This summer's trip comes as police in Baltimore and Puerto Rico are under intense scrutiny.
The Puerto Rico Police Department is in the midst of a 10-year reform agreement with federal authorities after a 2011 U.S. Department of Justice report found widespread police misconduct that routinely violated citizens' rights.
The Justice Department launched a similar investigation into the Baltimore Police Department last year, following the death of Freddie Gray and a sweeping report by The Baltimore Sun that found the city had paid $5.7 million in 102 court judgments and settlements for alleged police misconduct since 2011.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.