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.