Police, firefighters challenge residency rules; 'Recruitment and retention nightmare'

Kevin Johnson
Copyright 2006 Gannett Company, Inc.
All Rights Reserved

WASHINGTON- Police and firefighters across the nation are leading legal and legislative campaigns against rules that require them and other municipal employees to live in the cities where they work.

Residency requirements for public safety workers have been around for decades, and have long been viewed as an effective way to help make communities safe and economically stable. However, there is growing concern that residency laws make it too difficult for urban public safety agencies -- particularly police departments -- to recruit and retain officers.

In Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Louisiana and elsewhere, residency laws are under assault by critics who say patrol cops and their families sometimes face a difficult choice: Live in high-income neighborhoods they can't afford or in low-income areas that can be home to poor schools.

Police unions in Cleveland and Akron, which have joined lawsuits aimed at easing residency requirements for cops in those Ohio cities, also say the rules can put officers at risk by forcing them to live near people they investigate. The unions and the cities are battling in court over a law passed recently by Ohio's Legislature that eases residency requirements.

In Pennsylvania, the state Senate is considering legislation that would ban residency laws for police. Pittsburgh Fraternal Order of Police President Jim Malloy, whose group supports the bill, says Pittsburgh's residency law has led 10 officers on the 840-officer force to leave the department this year.

"I'll bet we've lost 25 to 30 officers in the past five years," Malloy says, adding that most moved to other police jobs in the area to be closer to spouses' jobs or to find affordable housing or better schools.

The concerns over residency laws have led some cities to ease such restrictions. Officials in Middletown, N.Y., stopped requiring all 66 of the city's cops to live within Middletown's 4 square miles. Police Chief Matthew Byrne says that at a time when police departments are struggling to find enough officers, the residency requirement was a huge burden to recruiting. The number of annual applicants for police jobs in the city of 26,000 about 75 miles northwest of New York City dropped dramatically, from about 300 to about 70.

"No one was signing up to take the exams," Byrne says. "We started losing officers to other departments in the same county."

For officers whose spouses were working in other parts of the region, the residency requirement became an incentive not to be a Middletown cop, Byrne says. "It was creating a recruitment and retention nightmare."

The residency law also created anxiety within the department because police officers were tasked with enforcing it.

When the requirement was eased last year, the city began allowing officers to live within a 25-mile radius of Middletown, or anywhere within the surrounding Orange County. Recruiting has improved -- and only 16 of Middletown's cops live in the city, Byrne says.

Concerns about affordable housing recently led officials in Washington, D.C., to stop requiring city officers to live within 25 miles of the U.S. Capitol. The old rule meant officers in Washington -- where the starting police salary is $44,611 a year -- either had to live in the district (where the median home price is $443,000, according to the National Association of Realtors) or one of its close-in suburbs in Maryland or Virginia. The new policy allows officers to live in more affordable suburbs farther out.

Ohio cities fight new state law

The rhetoric over residency laws has been particularly heated in Ohio, where Cleveland, Akron and other cities are at the center of a multipronged legal fight over residency laws. While police unions have joined lawsuits challenging such laws, the cities have gone to court to try to block recently approved state legislation that eliminates strict residency requirements.

Despite the new law, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and officials in other cities have warned their employees that they could be fired if they move outside their cities. Jackson says assaults on residency requirements threaten the stability of urban neighborhoods.

Requiring Cleveland's 8,500 city government workers to live within the city has protected many neighborhoods from a tide of inner-city flight to the suburbs, city spokeswoman Maureen Harper says.

"The citizens of Cleveland want this to be in place," she says.

The new Ohio law allows employees of a city to live in the surrounding county or in adjacent counties. It took effect last spring, triggering the legal challenges by the cities.

"Nobody should be forced to give up their constitutional rights to live where they want to live just because they work in the city," says Republican state Sen. Timothy Grendell of Chesterland, who sponsored the bill. He says strict municipal residency requirements no longer are necessary to ensure prompt response to local emergencies. "These aren't the days of horses and buggies."

In testimony supporting the Ohio legislation last year, attorneys Joseph Diemert Jr. and Thomas Hanculak, who specialize in municipal issues, compared residency requirements to slavery.

"Not since the end of slavery ...has this country tolerated employers mandating where their employees live," they said in a statement.

'A positive effect'

In Pennsylvania, where the state Senate is considering whether to ban residency laws for police departments, lawyer Sean Welby is supporting the bill by casting such laws as potentially devastating to police departments and public safety.

Welby, who represents the police union in Harrisburg, says the worst mistake he has made in that role was to accept a pension benefit for union members in exchange for a policy that required new officers to live in the city. Since the agreement was ratified five years ago, Welby says, Harrisburg's police department has struggled to attract recruits. He says the department is 23 officers short of its authorized force of 195.

Among other things, Welby says, he didn't foresee the need for flexibility in the residency rules to allow for officers' spouses who work in other cities.

Harrisburg spokesman Randy King doesn't buy Welby's argument that residency requirements have undermined police recruitment. King says Harrisburg has had plenty of applicants, most of whom have come from outside the city of about 47,400. The problem, King says, is that too many fail the department's entrance exams.

Since residency was made mandatory five years ago, King says, police have become "much more involved" in their neighborhoods. "It is having a positive effect," he says.

Of Harrisburg's 700 city employees, about 500 live in the city, King says. The rest, he says, were hired before the requirement and are permitted to continue working for the city as long as they don't move to another location outside Harrisburg. King says "four or five" city employees have left because they were unable to abide by the local law.

As for the state Senate proposal that would exempt cops from residency requirements, King says: "There are far more important things for our Legislature to be working on." 

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