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.

In 2001, Manger, then police chief in Fairfax County, persuaded Virginia officials to waive the citizenship requirement on a case-by-case basis when departments identified stellar candidates who were not citizens. D.C. police hire only citizens, as do federal law enforcement agencies.

Manger described the citizenship requirement as an "artificial barrier," likening it to the since-scrapped height requirement that kept his father from becoming a Maryland State Police trooper after serving abroad during World War II. Years ago, police agencies disqualified applicants who lacked near-perfect vision or for other reasons that now seem antiquated.

"In the mid-1980s, they were rejecting [gay] people because they could be blackmailed," Manger said. "These are ridiculous old notions that have no bearing over whether someone can be a suitable police officer."

According to the Pentagon, roughly 35,000 noncitizens serve in the military.

"These are somewhat similar environments. The military is producing highly-qualified individuals, and I think the citizens would benefit from it," said Sheridan, who supports changing the guidelines to allow noncitizens with military experience to become police officers.

Some cities with long-standing immigrant communities, such as Chicago, do not require that prospective police officers be U.S. citizens. In California, applicants who are permanent residents must have applied for citizenship when they join an academy class.

Other cities where the immigrant population has surged, including Washington and Dallas, have recruited aggressively in Puerto Rico, which brought mixed results. Officials in those cities found that Puerto Ricans had little in common with the region's Hispanic communities and were not always able to build rapport and establish trust.

Manger said he found little enthusiasm for the issue when he brought it up at a commission meeting in 2004, soon after he took the job in Montgomery. The commission surveyed 38 major police departments across the country and found that more than 75 percent had a citizenship requirement, 18 percent considered applicants who were permanent residents and 6 percent were willing to hire people who had work visas. Manger urged his counterparts to back him in eliminating the requirement.

Thomas E. Hutchins, then the superintendent of police, did not see the issue as a priority, Manger said. And no one else at the meeting showed much interest either, he said.

"It got a pretty chilly reception," Manger said.

He said he is not certain that the issue will get more traction this time around. Neither does Pope, the Talbot County sheriff, who declined to say whether he supports the proposal. But Manger is enthusiastic that Sheridan, who was appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) in June, asked Pope to study the issue.

The percentage of black officers on the Montgomery police force is roughly equivalent to that of county residents, Manger said. But the percentages of Latinos and Asians on the police force are considerably lower than those in the county, he said.

Manger said that doing away with the citizenship rule is unlikely to trigger a deluge of applicants. But he said even a handful would go a long way toward making the department more accurately reflect the community.

"There's a fight among agencies who want to find qualified people that give you that diversity," he said. "I know for a fact that there are a lot of people that live in Montgomery County that are not U.S. citizens but are as American as anyone else."

After getting the waiver approved in Virginia, largely by arguing that doing so would allow the police force to better reflect the county's growing Hispanic population, Manger hired only two noncitizens in his last few months as chief in Fairfax. They were not what he expected: a Canadian and an Australian.

Staff writer Mariana Minaya contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company