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State your case: Should there be residency requirements for sworn personnel?

An activist’s call for cops to live within the communities they police has received millions of views online


AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

This “State your case” looks at whether law enforcement officers should be required to live within the communities they serve. Read our columnists’ take on this issue and share your opinion below.

Our debaters: Jim Dudley, a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau, and Chief Joel Shults, EdD, who retired as chief of police in Colorado.

The ground rules: As in an actual debate, the pro and con sides are assigned randomly as an exercise in critical thinking and analyzing problems from different perspectives.

The issue: On July 2, Yusuf Abdul-Qadir, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, railed city council members to require Syracuse Police Department officers to maintain residency in the city. A short clip from a four-hour meeting at Syracuse’s city hall of Yusuf questioning Mayor Ben Walsh about police policies went viral and has been seen by millions of people. Watch the video clip below and then check out our columnist’s viewpoints.

Jim Dudley: There are several reasons why this is a bad idea.

Of course, being a police officer is not a form of indentured servitude. No one is forced to oblige the residency requirement; they have the option to apply at another agency. Recruiting is difficult enough and there are so many issues with forced residency.

Housing is an issue, as are schools if the officer has children. Would this restrictive contract force them to attend schools within city limits? Churches? Grocery stores?

This is just another tactic used to control one’s career choice, and it is a tool of opportunists. There is a thinly veiled threat that accompanies such an edict: “We know where you live.” This is especially real in current times where rioters have locked police inside stations and set fire to precinct buildings, personnel have been fired upon with mortar-style fireworks, and police facilities and whole blocks have been commandeered by mobs in Seattle, New York and elsewhere.

Joel Shults: Pictures of burned and spray-painted patrol cars in front of residences where officers park their take-home cars are certainly disturbing. The reality for most officers though is that they are appreciated by their neighbors, whether a marked car is parked or not. So, if safety is the primary concern for not living in the jurisdiction the officer serves, the reality is that the risk is negligible. I know officers whose property was vandalized or who received death threats at their home (myself included), but outside the witness protection program, some off-duty aggravation is unavoidable.

Another objection officers may have is that the cost of living in their work jurisdiction is prohibitive. I certainly encourage financial incentives and subsidies in those cases. I also recognize that cost of living is leverage for pay increases, but that leverage is lost if no one is paying those housing costs and choose commutes instead. Long commutes, especially combined with 10- or 12-hour shifts, are unhealthy for the officer and their relationships.

Dollars are not the only costs attached to living far from work. I’ve never worked in an urban agency or one that is fully staffed. I always worked where I knew I might be called in, whether I was officially on call or not, for a major incident. Living within a certain drive time – typically 15, 20, or 30 minutes – was important to the agency and its officers’ safety.

The weakest argument, in my view, is fostering an emotional investment in the community that employs the officer. There is merit to this idea, and loyalty was also an important part of my job satisfaction and probably is even in today’s volatile environment for most agencies. Departments should develop data-driven policies that show the advantages of residency requirements and provide programs and policies that improve officers’ affordability of housing and their family’s safety.

Jim Dudley: Joel, you make a good case for the residency requirement, but being embedded in a community is a double-edged sword. Can an officer remain objective and unbiased in policing their own neighborhood? I have a hard time believing an officer will remain neutral if they respond to a family domestic dispute at a neighbor’s house, or when responding to a bar fight and have to separate two Little League coaches they coach with. I do not buy into the “occupying army” analogy of tramping into a neighborhood, pillaging it and returning home to another city entirely without conscience.

But back to requiring only law officers to live in the communities that they police. Will all public agency employees also be held to the same standard? Don’t we want our teachers and health workers to live in the communities where they serve? How about agency heads of parks and recreation or libraries? Transit? Public works? Fire department and EMS employees?

Why do officers choose to live outside Syracuse now? The City has a lot of work to do to make housing and good schools and healthcare available to employees if they want them to reside there. Will officers be assured of the safety of their families and themselves if protesters decide to bear down on their homes? Doxxing is a reality and officers have had awful things done to them by way of anonymous hackers. If they are required to have residency in the community where they work, it will not take a genius to figure out where they live.

The whole residency idea is a smokescreen. The reality is, Syracuse cannot get people to apply to reflect the community make-up. As Syracuse Police Chief Kenton Buckner alluded to in a recent council meeting, “despite a 40-year-old Consent Decree that enables the city to give preference to minority police candidates, recruiting Black cops has been a challenge.” Requiring residency will only make the recruiting challenge even more difficult. Departments in the past that required residency to apply for a law enforcement position quickly saw the applicant pool get very shallow, very quickly.

Joel Shults: Jim, the question of remaining objective if you’re part of the neighborhood is one that has been asked about community policing. After corruption issues of beat officers back in the day, the transition to vehicle patrol was expected to create a healthy distance from personal relationships that led to favored treatment. Eventually that, in turn, created concerns about the lack of community connection, which evolved into community-oriented policing. Its express purpose was to re-engage police officers with their communities. So, the forces have spoken – the value of community engagement trumps the risk of losing objectivity in police discretion.

With reports of a significant number of officers retiring or getting out of the profession entirely, along with pre-existing recruiting deficits, officers may have more flexibility to choose an agency that does or does not require residency. It seems that we agree that incentives for housing assistance and safety plans should be part of a residency requirement. Doxxing is a threat no matter where an officer lives. It is ultimately up to each police family to invest in security systems and emergency plans. Having a visibly marked police unit in front of a house may not be a great idea even though it might be part of a residency and take-home car requirement under the umbrella of community policing.

Officers must manage their own careers, risks, lifestyle and ideology. Living where you work is one of those life management decisions, but not an unreasonable mandate.

NEXT: Read more “State your case” debates here.

NEXT: Read more “State your case” debates here.

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