Test takers line up at William Floyd High School early...

Test takers line up at William Floyd High School early in the morning to take the Suffolk County police exam. About 31,000 people were expected to take the test, the largest number in department history. (June 11, 2011) Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

More than 31,000 men and women turned out Saturday to take the Suffolk County police officer exam, but Ashley Torres had an edge.

She's fluent in Spanish.

Whether Torres, 19, will become an officer like her aunt will depend largely on how she scores on the written exam, as well as a background check, and psychological and fitness tests.

But the Suffolk Police Department is also putting an emphasis on hiring Spanish-speaking officers to better reflect the Island's burgeoning Hispanic population.

For the first time, the department will create two lists out of Saturday's huge applicant pool: one for those who speak only English; the others for those fluent in both languages.

When the county next hires police officers, top scorers from both lists will be picked to go to the police academy, boosting chances for Spanish-speaking candidates to be selected, said county personnel director Alan Schneider.

"More of our officers need to be able to communicate with the constituents we serve," said County Executive Steve Levy. "This isn't a social science exercise. We've got to be able to do it."

Torres, of Farmingdale, agreed with that logic.

"It's going to be a great help communicating with people who only speak Spanish, or broken English," she said.

Hundreds of hopefuls, Torres included, packed William Floyd High School in Mastic Beach for the hours-long exam -- one of 50 locations where it was offered countywide.

The overall turnout Saturday fell short of the 42,000 applicants Suffolk Police lured for an exam in the late 1990s, but topped the 28,000 who showed up four years ago, the last time the exam was offered, Schneider said.

County officials haven't made any decisions about how many police officers will be hired or when.

The economic downturn, he said, has increased the number of people applying for county civil service jobs about 30 percent over the last two years. Schneider said it's not clear if the downturn has increased the number of prospective cops -- especially because of the lure of good pay.

The Suffolk police labor contract signed last year set a starting salary of $42,000, and a $108,000 salary after six years.

For many would-be cops, though, money isn't the biggest issue.

Claudio Auquilla, 24, said violence in his hometown of Brentwood spurred him to take the test.

"You see 18- and 19-year-old kids getting killed and robbed in gun-related crimes," he said. "I want to do something that helps my community and my neighbors and family."

Auquilla, who speaks Spanish, said putting more bilingual officers on the streets would prevent some potentially dangerous miscommunication.

"You can have an officer ask someone for their papers, like a driver's license. But the person might not understand and they'll run away because they're scared," he said. "The officer thinks they're running because they have drugs."

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