March 10, 2010

Four officers join city police force

DAVID HENCH

— By

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer: Jonathon Chris Havens, Eric Johnson, Charles Ames and Dan Aquilera, left to right, are sworn in as new Portland police officers by City Clerk Linda Cohen at the Portland Police Department on Friday, August 14, 2009.

Staff Writer

PORTLAND — In Dan Aquilera's hometown, he wouldn't have dared to walk down the street in the crisp, dark suit he wore Friday morning as he was sworn in as one of Portland's newest police officers.

In La Guaira, Venezuela, he would have been mugged.

That is, unless his uncle, a police officer, was around.

''He would walk into that neighborhood and everybody would know, 'We're safe now. He's here,''' Aquilera said.

That sense of calm and security that his uncle provided led Aquilera to pursue a career in law enforcement. ''Hopefully, somebody will see me and say, 'Oh, we can play now,''' he said.

Aquilera was among four officers sworn in by City Clerk Linda Cohen, a group whose future in the department hinged on the willingness of other officers to accept a pay freeze.

Aquilera, Charles Ames, Jonathan ''Chris'' Havens and Eric Johnson will now go to the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro for training. They will be ready to hit the streets of Portland in December.

Each of the officers has demonstrated a commitment to public service, city officials say.

Havens, a native of Lexington, Ky., who grew up in Wiscasset, is a National Guard member designated a sharpshooter and expert with an M16 rifle.

Johnson, who graduated from the Maine School of Science and Mathematics and then the University of Maine, is the son of a former Portland emergency dispatcher and jail administrator for two counties who is now harbor master for Stonington.

Ames, a member of the Mountain Division from Vermont, served in Iraq in 2005. He was awarded the Purple Heart and received the Army Commendation for Valor for his actions during a firefight in Ramadi.

In Aquilera's case, the commitment has included resisting gangs in Miami, chasing drug smugglers with the Coast Guard and becoming a U.S. citizen.

''I want to give back to my new country,'' he said, moments after Police Chief James Craig presented the men with their badges and police identification.

Aquilera said his grandmother was a missionary from the United States who traveled to Venezuela, where she met his grandfather.

Growing up in La Guaira was a challenge, with widespread poverty and about 40 murders every weekend. He lived in a wood-floor shanty, and water was available once a week. His family would add water to an empty ketchup bottle and shake it to get the last of the sauce, he said with a friendly smile.

Conditions worsened after Hugo Chavez took power in the 1990s and the government began land conscription, Aquilera said. His father opted to sell his property and buy three plane tickets to the United States, he said.

As Aquilera grew up in a poor neighborhood in Miami, learning English, staying safe and avoiding recruitment by gangs were a daily struggle. He was helped by his ambition and the morals his grandmother instilled in him.

Eventually, Aquilera graduated from high school and joined the Coast Guard. He was stationed at Air Station Cape Cod and aboard the Reliant, a cutter based at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery. While stationed there he met his future wife, Jessica. After the birth of their daughter, Shiloh, nine months ago, Aquilera decided to leave the Coast Guard for the stability of raising a child in Portland, where he said the education, low crime rate and cultural amenities are exceptional.

Chief Craig praised the four recruits sworn in Friday as a talented group of young men, drawn from a broad pool of qualified applicants. He commended the patrol officers union for accepting a wage freeze so the department could avoid layoffs, which would have made it impossible to hire the officers.

Craig noted that Aquilera, who is Hispanic, and Havens, who is African-American, will help diversify the department so it more closely reflects the community.

The four new officers bring the department up to full strength, with 158 sworn personnel. A federal grant will eventually enable the department to hire six more officers.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com

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