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NH poised to lift citizenship requirement for police applicants

LE leaders want the state to allow green-card holders to become certified police officers, with some conditions



By Mark Hayward
The New Hampshire Union Leader

CONCORD, N.H. — Struggling like his counterparts across the state to find officers, Concord Police Chief Bradley Osgood thought he had a good candidate last year.

The applicant, a Concord resident since the age of 6, was a permanent legal resident whose application for U.S. citizenship has been accepted. Because he is a Marine Corps reservist, the written citizenship test has been waived. All he is waiting for is an in-person interview.

But because of a 40-year-old rule requiring New Hampshire police officers to be U.S. citizens, Concord couldn’t hire him.

Following Osgood’s unsuccessful appeal for a waiver to enroll the man in the police academy, law enforcement leaders called on the state’s law enforcement certification board to replace the hard-and-fast citizenship requirement with a rule that would allow green-card holders to become certified police officers, with some conditions.

The Police Standards and Training Council last week empaneled a special committee to consider revising the rule. The change is being contemplated at a time when police forces are struggling to fill open positions and reflect the state’s changing demographics.

“We do need to be thorough and thoughtful. At the same time, unequivocally this needs to be changed,” said John Scippa, the council’s director. “We’re probably losing very good candidates.”

Osgood said it never dawned on his recruit that he had to be a citizen to be a police officer, considering his military service and the advanced status of his citizenship application.

But the council told Osgood it cannot waive any of its requirements on an individual basis, and “trying to get the federal government to act on (the citizen application) is like pushing a boulder uphill,” Osgood said.

Most proposals to let non-U.S. citizens become police officers require that they eventually obtain citizenship.

Cheshire County Sheriff Eli Rivera has proposed allowing green-card holders to be certified if they have lived in the country for two years. They would have to become naturalized citizens within one year of eligibility for police employment.

Under his proposal, a police officer would be fired if he or she did not cooperate in the citizenship application process, and any permanent resident denied citizenship would be disqualified from police work.

“We are a nation and a state that welcomes everyone,” Rivera wrote to the council. “We pride ourselves on allowing people to succeed and pursue the American dream.”

Complications and confusion

Some local police officials worry about details.

Keene Police Chief Steven Russo questioned how non-citizens can take oaths to protect the U.S. Constitution.

He also questioned how local police could research someone’s background in another country.

“How do you do a good background check on someone who’s only been here three to four years?” he asked.

Police standards officials have researched the citizenship requirements in nearly every state and found a hodgepodge.

For example, in Vermont and Maine, citizenship is a requirement for some agencies, but not others, such as Vermont State Police.

Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York require police officers to be citizens.

Maryland accepts a permanent legal resident who has been honorably discharged from the military. Virginia requires citizenship but allows chiefs to waive the requirement for good cause.

Massachusetts’ requirement is unclear, said council member Maj. David Parenteau, who did the research. The Bay State’s civil service rules seem to govern the process, and Massachusetts officials told him they don’t know how to answer the question, he said.

Complaints and pressure

Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department has brought discrimination cases against some western United States law enforcement agencies who have cited citizenship in hiring and promotion decisions.

The Denver Sheriff Department had to pay a fine and change its practice of requiring that deputy sheriffs be citizens.

Settlements also were reached with the Arapahoe County Sheriff in Colorado, Stanislaus County in California and the police department in Eugene, Ore.

In those cases, the Justice Department said the departments violated the anti-discrimination provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act. That law prohibits discrimination based on citizenship unless a law or regulation is on the books requiring citizenship.

The New Hampshire committee tasked with rewriting the citizenship provision comprises Osgood, Rivera, Russo, Nashua Police Chief Michael Carignan, State Police Col. Nathan Noyes and Circuit Court Judge Sawako Gardner.

During their monthly meetings with the Manchester Police Commission, the city’s police brass often discuss the difficulties of hiring.

Earlier this month, Police Chief Allen Aldenberg said he would be happy to get three to five hires from the 50 applicants who recently took a written test. Ten failed the written portion, 20 failed the physical test, and many more failed the background test, he said.

(c)2021 The New Hampshire Union Leader (Manchester, N.H.)