Faced with the growth of the Hispanic community in North Carolina, the state's biggest police department is looking for qualified, bilingual recruits in Puerto Rico.

Four officers from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department will be on the Caribbean island for four days next week to interview possible candidates.

Only 35 of the CMPD's 1,758 officers are Hispanics, while another 16 can speak Spanish.

The 2010 Census counted 800,120 Hispanics in North Carolina, 111 percent more than in the previous decade and representing 8.4 percent of the total population.

More than half of the state's Latinos are Mexican.

Charlotte, the biggest city in the state, has 95,688 Latinos, representing 13.1 percent of the population. Surrounding Mecklenburg County has 111,944 Hispanic residents.

More than 500 people in Puerto Rico have shown interest in the offer of employment in Charlotte, according to Capt. Gerald Smith, the CMPD head of recruiting.

"Other big departments have done the same, like Baltimore, Washington D.C. and Atlanta, with good results. Puerto Ricans are American citizens, bilingual. We need to diversify our force," Smith told Efe.

Recruiters will go to the cities of San Juan, Ponce, Mayaguez and Caguas, where they will provide orientation to those interested, an initial written exam, and those who pass will be taken to Charlotte to continue with the hiring process.

The department currently needs 20 new officers and perhaps many more in the coming months as Charlotte prepares to host the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

For Maggie Giraud, president of the Puerto Rican Cultural Society in Charlotte, the news of recruiting in Puerto Rico has been well received on the island and she believes it will be beneficial "for all concerned."

"There are professional university people who are out of work - unemployment stands at 17 percent. Puerto Ricans who take the chance will bring experience and will enter the United States already having a steady job and, above all, with respect and a great deal of appreciation in the community," Giraud told Efe.

The starting salary of a police officer in Charlotte is $37,000 a year, compared with $25,000 in Puerto Rico.

According to Sgt. Dan Castillo, of Puerto Rican origin and an experienced recruiter in the CMPD, it has been very difficult to find Hispanic candidates fluent in Spanish.

"If we go to Florida, California or Texas, people there prefer to stay with their families, they avoid moving. With the military it's easier because they're used to moving. Hopefully we can bring people from Puerto Rico because the police department in Charlotte offers good employment opportunities," he said.

For the veteran of more than 10 years in the CMPD, Alex Cruz, brought up in New York by Puerto Rican parents, the new officers contracted by the Charlotte police will have the advantage of knowing Hispanic culture.

"It's not just about talking to people in Spanish. We have to understand their culture for them to trust us and tell us what's going on in their neighborhoods, and in that way prevent crime," Cruz told Efe.

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