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A rule change will allow Marshallese into local police, state confirms

by Doug Thompson | February 18, 2021 at 7:32 a.m.
Springdale Police officer Gomez Zackious speaks Marshallese to a woman during an iinvestigation in 2010 in Springdale. Marshallese residents can serve in local law enforcement agencies if the state Department of Public Safety changes its rules, the agency said Wednesday. (File Photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette)

Marshallese residents can serve in local law enforcement agencies if the state Department of Public Safety changes its rules, the agency said.

Northwest Arkansas law enforcement agencies welcomed the news Wednesday.

Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder said he talked with Jami Cook, director of the department, and encouraged the agency to change the rules.

Finding more officers and deputies who can speak Marshallese, which has several dialects, is one reason for the rule change, Helder and Lt. Jeff Taylor, public information officer of the Springdale Police, have said. Other reasons include building trust with the Marshallese community and widening the pool of qualified applicants as a whole.

The state Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Training begins its regulation change process after a legislative session, said Amanda Yarbrough, attorney for the state Division on Law Enforcement Standards and Training. This is so the commission can revise regulations in light of the latest changes in the law, she said.

Citizens of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, a former U.S. trust territory, can freely come to the United States and stay, but they remain citizens of their home republic.

The largest number of Marshallese in the United States outside of Hawaii live in Arkansas, U.S. census figures show. Arkansas is home to an estimated 15,000 Marshallese, according to federal Census Bureau estimates. Most of them live in Northwest Arkansas, census figures show.

Entrance into the state's Law Enforcement Training Academy requires U.S. citizenship. House Bill 1342 by Rep. Megan Godfrey, D-Springdale, would have changed that. The measure failed to get through the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs on Feb. 8. It failed in part because lawmakers questioned whether the change required a state law or a regulation change would suffice.

A regulation change would allow Marshallese to serve in local police departments and sheriff's offices, Yarbrough confirmed Tuesday.

There are, however, two types of police required to be citizens by state law. The citizenship requirement cannot be waived in those two categories, Yarbrough said. One is Arkansas State Police. The other is nonsalaried reserve officers who assist local departments.

Those nonsalaried auxiliary officer positions aren't as urgently needed as active-duty officers, Helder said.

Godfrey called the news about the regulation route "great."

"The bill was a collaboration with local law enforcement and Marshallese leaders anyway, so eligibility for local and county officers is most pertinent, particularly in our community," she said.

Rep. Clint Penzo, R-Springdale, has HB 1333 to let Marshallese into police departments, including state police, still active on the legislative calendar, legislative records show.

"Our initial goal was to incorporate the Marshallese community into municipal and county law enforcement," Penzo said Wednesday. "I am glad this can be accomplished with a rule change. I am looking forward to working with our regulators to make this needed change so our Marshallese residents can serve our community."

Doug Thompson can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWADoug.

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