Philadelphia, like many cities, has ping-ponged on residency requirements for police officers. At question is whether cops should have to live in the cities where they work, or be allowed to commute from the suburbs and other alternatives. Since 2012, Philly officers with five or more years of experience have not had to live within city limits, and members of the District Attorney’s Office represented by the police union are also exempt. The Mayor’s Office, however, indicated at a City Council hearing this month that it wants to revisit residency requirements when negotiating the next police union contract. The current one ends June 2020. As of now, approximately 30% of Philly officers live outside the city.
Defenders of residency requirements say that they create a force that is better connected to the communities it must serve, a crucial issue amid high police-community tensions. Opponents say demanding officers to live within city limits shrinks the recruitment pool and does not guarantee that officers have better relationships with civilians.
The Inquirer turned to a Philadelphia community leader and a Pittsburgh researcher who waded through that city’s own residency debate to ask: Should cops have to live where they work?
The residency requirement is an idea whose time has come (again, that is). This is not a new debate, nor is it unique to law enforcement nor the city of Philadelphia. Many municipalities around the nation require various public employees to live where they are employed.
I agree with proponents who argue from a fiscal standpoint that it is good stewardship to keep local dollars in their own community. Given that Philadelphia is the poorest big city in America, this argument has special merit. For example, our city is in no position to lose any funding, such as income tax revenue, that could aid our school district. And bear in mind that it is not uncommon for the private sector to place demands on their workforce in exchange for gainful employment. In this case, the citizens of Philadelphia are the employers and should make the rules.
While the fiscal reasons are compelling in and of themselves, I see an even more serious concern for bringing back the full residency requirement. In far too many Philadelphia neighborhoods, the police department feels more like an occupying army than those who are called to serve. This feeling has only intensified in recent months in the wake of the devastating Plain View Project where racist, Islamophobic, homophobic, and other hateful social media posts by Philadelphia law enforcement were made public. Those posts suggest a contempt from officers toward people they are sworn to protect and make residents feel more alienated as a result.
Let’s be honest: A residency requirement alone will not eradicate such behavior. There is certainly much more work to be done. However, this is a step in the right direction.
When officers patrol the city they live in, they will better understand the culture of the place and its people. Culture is not something that can be learned popping in and out. Culture is in everything, even the very air that we breathe. One must live here to fully appreciate and learn Philadelphia’s unique character. Officers who live in the city will better understand the distinct personalities of the various neighborhoods. More importantly, they will treat citizens as neighbors, not strangers. This will not only improve community/police relations — this will save lives.
Listen, I get it. It’s America and we love the freedom to do what we want — especially to select where we live. As a pastor in a national denomination, I have been subject to a different form of residency requirements. In six of the seven congregations I’ve served across the nation, I have moved into those cities. I was not always excited about that decision at first. But afterward, I learned how much it benefited my ministry by being a part of the community full-time (not just dropping in to preach and run). I learned to love each of those places, and more importantly, I loved the people in them. In spiritual terms, we call that experience incarnation. It is the belief that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
This is what we want from our police department. A force for good that dwells among us, not an occupying force that hovers over us.
Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler is cochair of the Live Free campaign of the interfaith group POWER and member of the Rally for Justice Coalition.
Several years ago, Pittsburgh relaxed its police-residency law to let officers live outside the city. I had a front-row seat to public discussions on this, as a member of a mayoral commission. Overwhelmingly, city residents opposed the change. They wanted their cops to live in Pittsburgh — to reside and pay taxes in the city. In a time of tight city budgets, we’d all like to know we’re getting back at least some of the money we put out in municipal salaries.
Even more often, people said that having cops who live in our city means having officers who will do the job better, because they’ll realize they are serving and protecting their neighbors. They’ll know the places they work and the people they encounter.
But the more one examines this idea, the less it holds up.
In Pittsburgh, a police officer might live in my neighborhood, Point Breeze, in Zone 4 (Pittsburgh has six police zones). But just as a matter of chance, an officer living in Point Breeze would likely be assigned to one of the other zones, or to various task forces or special squads, making it comparatively rare for an officer to serve where he or she lived. The same is true in a bigger city like Philadelphia or Chicago, only more so because of the size.
As for the idea of a greater commitment to the city if one lives there, even though this makes intuitive sense, the depth of individual officers’ commitments to serving the city and its residents varies a lot across any police department, just like it would across the city’s public school teachers or other municipal workers.
What counts is not where a police officer lays his or her head at night; it’s where his or her head is on the job — how committed the officer is to the safety of the area being patrolled and the people who live and work there. An officer who lives in the city is fine, but what’s more important is what the officer is thinking, doing, and accomplishing while there. How is that officer getting to know residents and business owners? Does the officer attend community safety meetings or festivals, where he or she can encounter residents in a setting that is not an emergency?
And there is another big hurdle all police departments face, especially in urban areas: recruitment and retention. Departments cannot recruit enough good people, and may find their fully trained and seasoned officers siphoned off by suburban departments or federal agencies who promise an easier job and better pay than the city can give.
Relaxing residency requirements gives these departments which desperately need officers the flexibility to bring in more candidates. They can tell potential recruits that they wouldn’t have to move from the suburban town where they live to take the job they really want. Once in the department, those having young families would not feel compelled to leave the city, and so their job, to pursue better schools (which remains a sad but persistent fact often cited by officers leaving departments).
It’s understandable that community members want to retain police officers as residents. But what’s more important is what officers do on the job, not where they go home when they finish.
David A. Harris is a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and host of the Criminal Injustice podcast.