Portland police officer Deni Snajder is sworn in as a U.S. citizen along with 19 other people during a citizenship ceremony outside the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in South Portland on Friday. Snajder, who is originally from Serbia, was hired by Portland police in December. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The Portland Police Department on Friday celebrated the naturalization of its first non-citizen officer, who was hired after a tweak in civil service law two years ago welcomed legal residents to apply for those positions.

Deni Snajder, 28, joined the Portland department in December 2019, but on Friday he raised his right hand and took a second, perhaps more life-changing oath to become a citizen of the United States.

In a ceremony on the lawn outside the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in South Portland, Snajder was one of more than a dozen to become citizens. About two dozen officers turned out to support Snajder, and the ceremony included a presentation of colors by the Portland Police Honor Guard, and remarks from Chief Frank Clark.

Snajder received a framed flag from Clark, and posed for picture after picture with his colleagues after the ceremony.

“Me being a police officer before becoming a citizen will not change much, but it’s certainly a big step,” Snajder said. “It’s a big milestone.”

Snajder said he applied to become a police officer in Serbia, but was rejected. He said the emphasis on community policing in Maine is the biggest difference he’s experienced so far as a rookie cop.

Portland police officer Deni Snajder is reflected in the glass case holding a flag given to him by Portland Police Chief Frank Clark after Snajder was sworn in as a new U.S. citizen during a ceremony in South Portland on Friday Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“Policing in the states, specifically in Maine, is more based and kind of focused toward community and service to community, rather than specifically fighting crime, which is great, I think,” Snajder said.

Clark said he hopes the change in civil service law will lead to hiring people with more diverse backgrounds, which in the long term will make the department’s demographics more resemble the residents they serve.

“I think that was the intent of that change … to open those doors and have conversations with people you hadn’t before,” Clark said.

Clark hired one other legal resident who hails from Scotland, but that officer’s naturalization papers are still being processed, he said.

Snajder – who pronounces his name like “Denny Snyder” – grew up in Serbia. His path to Maine began about six years ago when he spent a summer in the state as a student on a J1 visa working as a lifeguard at Fun Town Splash Town in Saco.

At the water park he met McKenzi Stevens. They hit it off and started dating, and at the conclusion of Snajder’s visa, they decided to stay together after he returned to Eastern Europe and make it work.

“We did distance for several months, he came back to visit, I went over there several times,” said Stevens. About 18 months into their relationship, they started making plans to marry.

“We just knew,” said Stevens, who is now a full-time student at the University of Maine School of Law.

Snajder returned to the United States for good in 2016, the year they wed. Snajder got his first job at the York County Jail as a corrections officer. Corrections work is a common stepping stone to becoming a police officer. But for Snajder, it was also where he had a chance encounter with another naturalized Serb police officer, Andjelko Napijalo, that helped motivate him to apply.

Portland police officer Deni Snajder stands among other new citizens during their naturalization ceremony outside in South Portland on Friday. Snajder, who is originally from Serbia, was hired by Portland police in December. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Napijalo – who grew up in Croatia but is an ethnic Serb – was naturalized in 2003. He was hired by the Portland Police Department the next year, and has since been promoted to detective, he said.

On the day the two met, Napijalo was on a routine visit to the York jail following a case when another detective for the York County Sheriff’s Office asked him where he was from. Napijalo said Serbia.

“I was talking to one of the detectives at the sheriff’s department, he said, ‘oh, we have a Serbian officer working at the jail.’ I thought, ‘sure you do.’ People always put a lot of Eastern Europeans in the same basket.”

Napijalo was even more suspicious when the York County detective said the jail officer was named Danny, he said.

“In Serbia, we don’t have a name ‘Danny,’ ” Napijalo said. Napijalo was on his way out of the building, when Snajder happened to pass nearby. The York County detective called out to him: “Hey Danny, where are you from”?

“He said Serbia,” Napijalo said Friday. “I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ ”

Snajder was at first hesitant to apply to the Portland department, Napijalo said. “He felt his English was not good enough. I said, ‘trust me, it’s good enough.’ ”

Snajder and Napijalo became fast friends, and Napijalo submitted a recommendation for Snajder when he applied.

Now, including Snajder, Napijalo and Napijalo’s wife, who works as a dispatcher, there are three Serbs in the department.

“Our little community is growing,” Napijalo said.

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