Army Lets A Felon Join Up, But The New York Police Will Not

Army Lets A Felon Join Up, But The New York Police Will Not
January 6th, 2008  
Team Infidel

Topic: Army Lets A Felon Join Up, But The New York Police Will Not

Army Lets A Felon Join Up, But The New York Police Will Not
New York Times
January 6, 2008 By C. J. Chivers and William K. Rashbaum
NAWA, Afghanistan — On the day after he completed a one-year sentence at the Rikers Island jail, Osvaldo Hernandez walked into an Army recruiting office in Elmhurst, Queens. He was a felon with a plan to change his life.
It was late in 2003. Mr. Hernandez had been convicted of possessing an unregistered pistol the year before. The Army, struggling to meet its recruiting goals, granted him an enlistment waiver for the crime and soon swore him in.
Four years later, Mr. Hernandez, 25, is Specialist Hernandez, a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan.
His transformation from inmate to productive citizen would seem to be complete. His Army supervisors say he is reliable, honest and brave. Barring something unforeseen, he will be honorably discharged at the end of his 15-month combat tour this year and hopes to become a New York City police officer.
But Specialist Hernandez is finding that what the Army forgave is still remembered at home. The New York Police Department is among the broad mainstream of departments that say a felony conviction is an absolute bar to police work, no matter his exemplary military record, even in a combat zone.
“Basically they told me, word for word, ‘You’re good enough for the Army, but you aren’t good enough to be a police officer,’” Specialist Hernandez said, describing an exchange with a police recruiter on the department’s recruitment hot line. “They said, ‘You need more moral stature to be a police officer.’”
The rejection of Specialist Hernandez underscores the inconsistencies in the standards for uniformed service in the country’s many different police and military services, and the conundrums resulting from the varying rules.
It is also a case with multiple interpretations, many of them balancing notions of crime, punishment and the possibilities for redemption against the risks of allowing applicants with checkered pasts into positions of public trust, even at a time when New York is struggling to fill the ranks of its police force.
New York City currently has about 35,400 officers, nearly 2,500 below its authorized head count of 37,838. The number has recently been holding steady, in part because of a lull in the pace of retirements.
One of the department’s barriers to recruiting, police officials say, is the $25,100 starting salary; police officials say the salary is low enough to discourage many qualified applicants.
Were it not for his record, Specialist Hernandez, a well-regarded member of a renowned military unit, might be an ideal applicant.
The department has long made it a priority to recruit military veterans, noting that most are already adjusted to the peculiar demands of regimented life and many are extensively trained. In recent years, many veterans have also been seasoned and tested by their experiences in war.
The value placed on prior military service is clear in both the department’s recruiting efforts — it has offered the civil service test for officers on several military bases around the country, as it does on some college campuses — and a waiver it routinely grants.
Under the current hiring rules, two years of active-duty military service, with an honorable discharge, can be substituted for the 60 college credits otherwise required to join the force.
In all, officials said, 8 percent to 10 percent of officers have military experience.
The institutional value of military service also runs to the top of the department. Three of the four most recent commissioners served active-duty military tours: William J. Bratton and Bernard B. Kerik in the Army, and Raymond W. Kelly in the Marines. (The remaining former commissioner, Howard Safir, began but did not complete Marine Corps officer training.)
Chuck Wexler, who heads the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit group focused on improving police tactics, said he sympathized with Specialist Hernandez’s disappointment. But, he said, he believed few, if any, police departments in this country had ever considered hiring an officer with a felony conviction, particularly a recent one.
“With the scrutiny that the public puts the police under, it is hard to ignore,” he said in a telephone interview. If Specialist Hernandez made a mistake on the streets or got in trouble, he said, it “would be pretty hard for a police department to defend.”
But Mr. Wexler said that for all the similarities, the jobs of urban police officers in a Western democracy and Army soldiers in Afghanistan were nonetheless different.
“If you’re working in a war-torn environment, the level of concern, the level of threat, the level of security is very different,” he said.
Specialist Hernandez said that the same military service the police value in potential recruits should justify a waiver in his case.
“One percent of America is doing what I’m doing today,” he said recently, sitting behind the turret on a patrol through a part of the Afghan desert where Taliban fighters operate openly. “But I’m not good enough to go serve New York City?”
He and several of his Army supervisors noted that he was fit and disciplined, and that his firsthand sense of the streets and his record of public service could make him an especially informed patrolman on the beat.
He grew up in Corona, Queens, raised by his mother after his father abandoned the family when Specialist Hernandez was 6. By the time he graduated from Newtown High School in 2000, he said, he had seen the value of work.
“We were poor as dirt can be,” he said. “But my mother got her education, and we were fine after a while.”
He also said that his crime was less severe than many of the felonies that are understandably disqualifying. He was arrested in 2002, court records show, after being pulled over by plainclothes police officers in Richmond Hill, Queens. The officers found a semiautomatic .380 pistol under his car seat.
He admitted that the pistol was his, but said that a friend had given it to him a week before he was arrested and that he had not used it to commit a crime. His neighborhood was dangerous, he said, and he kept the pistol with youthful notions of self-defense. “I don’t even know if it worked,” he said.
He pleaded guilty in court to third-degree criminal possession of a weapon, a D felony in a penal code that lists felonies in severity from A, the most serious, to E, the least. He had never been arrested before.
When he began to serve his sentence in jail, he said, he was mentored by a correction officer who had been an Army Ranger. The officer encouraged him to consider trying to enlist. “After two months, my mind was set that that’s what I wanted to do,” he said.
No matter the circumstances, Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, said that the department could not offer a waiver because a felony conviction is an “absolute bar” to joining the force, a stricture laid out in the city’s Administrative Code. Even misdemeanor convictions, Mr. Browne said, often disqualify candidates.
And most felons are prohibited by law from carrying weapons — clearly a bar to service as a police officer.
Specialist Hernandez, in his current job, legally carries an M4 assault rifle and operates a medium machine gun from behind a vehicle turret. The government has trained him in other weapon systems as well, and he said he had taught himself to use some of the weapons commonly used by the Taliban, including the Kalashnikov assault rifle.
While in some ways the case might seem awkward for the Army — which sharply improved the quality of its ranks with decades of volunteer service, and has never wanted to be seen as a means for ex-convicts to launder their lives — officers in Specialist Hernandez’s command have been supportive of his efforts to find work in law enforcement.
His platoon leader, First Lt. Mordechai Sorkin, went so far as to research the possibility of a pardon from Gov. Eliot Spitzer. But because there is no question that Specialist Hernandez committed the crime for which he was convicted, Lieutenant Sorkin said he learned, the chances are slim.
Lieutenant Sorkin, when asked what kind of police officer Specialist Hernandez might make, spoke without hesitation. “This is a soldier who wants to better himself, and wants to give back to his community and his city,” he said.
In an official character reference, the lieutenant wrote that Specialist Hernandez’s “hard work and leadership capabilities easily make him one of the best paratroopers in the platoon.” The specialist, Lieutenant Sorkin added, “is a model of how our country’s correctional system should work.”
C. J. Chivers reported from Afghanistan and William K. Rashbaum from New York.

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