Aurora’s citizenship requirement for police officers and firefighters being questioned

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AURORAAn Aurora city lawmaker is concerned the city police and fire department rules barring non-citizens from donning badges is a violation  of federal law.

Allison Hiltz, an at-large city councilwoman and chair of the city’s public safety policy committee, raised the concern last week when she asked finalists for an open Civil Service Commission seat whether they would change those city rules to adhere to U.S. Department of Justice rules.

Currently, city police and fire applications ask if applicants are U.S. citizens, and the department does not consider them for hire.

“It is already a struggle to find interested and qualified candidates to join our police and fire departments,” Hiltz later told the Sentinel. “To disqualify people who are legally allowed to work in the United States, including veterans who served in our military, simply because we feel like it makes no sense.”

The citizenship question was also on the agenda for a Jan. 8 civil service commission meeting. An assistant Aurora city attorney said she couldn’t comment on the compliance because it was legal advice previously given to civil service commissioners.

A city spokesman told the Sentinel the city is “in the process of ongoing discussions to ensure our requirements are in compliance, and to the benefit of our public safety agencies.”

Councilors’ public safety policy committee is expected to take up the matter at its February meeting. Hiltz is the chairwoman of that group.

An information packet for joining the Aurora Police Department available on the city’s website dictates that citizenship is a minimum qualification, “proof will be either a notarized copy or original birth certificate, passport of the United States of America, or a certificate of naturalization.”

Council members have been in embroiled in discussions about how to bolster its police force, especially as the police union and city came to an impasse over pension benefits this summer. Some council members have quietly raised concerns, and others at public meetings, over how many Aurora police officers may make a lateral move to Denver’s police force for better pay and benefits.

City lawmakers agreed to a one-time pay bump this year, but didn’t give in to the union’s request to associate with a locally-controlled defined contribution retirement plan. The police union president Bob Wesner told city council members during a meeting earlier this year that Denver is Aurora’s biggest competitor when it comes to hiring police officers.

The police union did not return requests for comment on this story as of deadline.

City statistics show nearly one-fifth of residents are foreign born, another reason why Hiltz said the requirement is an important issue to Aurora. Residents who are legally living in the U.S., but do not have citizenship are barred from being police officers or firefighters.

Both city lawmakers and the civil service have the power to change the requirement. If the civil service commission decides to do so, it will take a simple majority vote. A council change would require an ordinance to be adopted, according to a city spokesman.

Aurora isn’t alone in its question of citizenship on police and fire applications — for Denver, it lead to a slap on the wrist and a fine from federal justice officials.

In 2016, the Denver Sheriff’s Department was fined by the DOJ for its citizenship requirement, according to a news release from the federal agency. The sheriff’s department was also ordered to sort through those applications tossed aside because of the internal rule and consider those applicants for future job openings. The department also had to further train its human resource staff.

“We commend the Denver Sheriff Department for its cooperation and commitment to removing unnecessary and unlawful employment barriers,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, in a 2016 statement. “Eliminating this unlawful citizenship requirement will help ensure that the Denver Sheriff Department hires the best and most qualified individuals to protect and serve.  The entire community will benefit from these reforms.”

The Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office does not require applicants to be U.S. Citizens, according to job requirements listed on the agency’s website.

— Quincy Snowdon contributed to this report.