Proposal to Let Noncitizens Join Md. Police Under Review

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 10, 2007

It never made sense to Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger: Immigrants who have green cards can join the U.S. military and fight America's wars but, like other noncitizens, are ineligible to work as police officers in Maryland and most other states.

Since 2004, Manger has championed the concept of lifting the citizenship requirement under certain circumstances. At his urging, the Maryland Police Training Commission, which oversees training and hiring standards for law enforcement agencies across the state, began studying the issue this year. A vote could come next month.

"They can fight in Iraq, and yet they're not able to serve as police officers in the communities they were risking their lives for," Manger said.

The subject is fraught with political risk, particularly for elected officials, because illegal immigration has become a more divisive issue in recent years. Also, those opposed to employing noncitizens as police officers point to the difficulty of conducting thorough background checks on noncitizens, and some say they fear that the move could even allow terrorists to infiltrate police departments.

Larry Harmel, executive director of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association, said the proposal raises the concern about screening. "One of the things I question is how thorough a background check you can do for someone from another country," he said.

Manger said allowing noncitizens to apply, as some states and other jurisdictions have done, would not entail lowering standards. He thinks noncitizens who have been in the country long enough to undergo a thorough background check ought to be eligible.

Manger said that lifting the citizenship requirement would allow police agencies to hire more candidates who speak multiple languages and have insight into immigrant communities. More generally, he said, it could expand the talent pool in the Washington region, where many departments compete for qualified candidates and have in recent years struggled to fill academy classes.

Maryland State Police Superintendent Terrence B. Sheridan, who chairs the training commission, asked Talbot County Sheriff Dallas Pope to study the issue and report back soon. Pope said the leaders of most law enforcement agencies in the state want to diversify their forces and expand their applicant pools.

"From an operational standpoint, this is a real issue that they have to deal with now and get up to speed with now," he said.

Still, he described the politics of the issue as "one of the disconnects."

"I sense that there's apprehension due to the local, statewide and national trends," he said. "It's a sensitivity that many people want to say they're in step with, but they're cautious about a constituency that sees it in a different light."

Permanent residents, immigrants who hold green cards, are generally not eligible to apply for citizenship until they have had their green cards for five years. Many opt not to apply because the process is lengthy and expensive.

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