Have you ever had a police officer from your town, live on your block? The answer is likely, no. And there’s a good chance that your local beat cop doesn’t even live in the city they patrol—they likely commute out to the suburbs when their shift is over.
To counter this pattern, some law enforcement agencies actually require officers to live in the city where they work. The controversial practice dates back more than a century, but the effectiveness of these laws is questionable, and they are largely being left out of the current conversation about reforming America’s police.
At first glance, Charles Stone seems like the archetypical hometown cop. Cruising the streets of deep east Oakland, he seems to know just about almost everyone he sees.
“I have a certain amount of pride in being a police officer in the city that I’m from, and the city that my family is from.”
— Officer Charles Stone
He’s a school resource officer assigned to Parker Elementary School, in the middle of a neighborhood he says is infested with crime.
“There’s been multiple people shot, drive-by shootings more often than we’d care for,” says Stone as he sits in his squad car across from the school.
“Major narcotics activity out of these apartments up here. And where you have drug dealing and drug activity and narcotics activity, you have the potential for violence,” he says.
Stone became a police officer 15 years ago. The neighborhood he’s currently assigned to isn’t the area he grew up in, but it’s still part of his hometown turf.
“Five generations in my family have been born and raised in Oakland, so it’s a city that I’m absolutely proud of and my family still lives here. I have a certain amount of pride in being a police officer in the city that I’m from, and the city that my family is from.
But only 9 percent of Oakland’s police officers live in Oakland. And while that’s pretty low, it’s not an anomaly. Around the country other cities, big and small, face the same challenges. In Miami, 7 percent of the city’s police live within the city limits. In Minneapolis and Ferguson, Missouri, it’s around 6 percent.
Those numbers are problematic to John Penny, a criminologist at Southern University at New Orleans. “How do you do community policing with people who don’t live in the community?” asks Penny, who also spent 16 years as a juvenile probation and parole officer. It was a job that took him to virtually every corner of New Orleans. He still lives in the city today.
“Under normal circumstances, you protect it better if you have to live in it. If you don’t, then it may become just a job to you,” says Penny. “If you live outside the city, your loyalty and dedication and commitment might not be as great.”’
RESIDENCY AND RACE
Residency requirements are rules that require cops to live in the city that they patrol. There were common around the turn of the 20th century but weren’t originally designed to recruit dedicated cops. Descendent from English law, the requirements were a way for politicians to maintain power by doling out jobs to people living in their districts. In fact, police reformers were against the requirements because of the nepotism and corruption involved.
But things changed around the civil rights era, and residency requirements became a racial and economic issue. Suddenly, the idea of mostly white police officers patrolling inner city neighborhoods of color during the day, then escaping to their suburban communities at night didn’t, sound so great.
“How do you do community policing with people who don’t live in the community?”
— John Penny
Andrew Flowers is a quantitative editor for FiveThirtyEight.com and has studied the history of these local laws. Flowers says the residency requirements were instituted in the 1970s and the 1960s out of an environment of white flight and the middle class leaving to the suburbs. “The motivations seemed sensible,” says Flowers. “You want to keep tax money in the city, you want to improve the resident-police relations.”
Local governments in Chicago, Denver and dozens of other cities currently have laws requiring their officers to live within city limits. Some of these laws include other emergency responders such as firefighters, citing the notion that they need to live close in case of an emergency. Other requirements, like Boston’s, cover all local government employees.
In practically every case there’s been resistance from law enforcement agents, who say these residency rules restrict their freedom of movement.
In 1976, a Philadelphia firefighter took the issue all the way to the US Supreme Court in McCarthy v. Philadelphia Civil Serv. Com’n. Despite the fire department’s residency requirement, he wanted to move out of town. But he lost the case, and lost his job. The court rejected the argument that anyone had a constitutional right to be employed by any particular city.
The Fraternal Order of Police, or FOP, has been a consistent opponent of residency requirements. Retired Nashville, Tennessee police commander Bob Nash, worked with the local and national FOP and helped lead a successful campaign in 1994 that convinced Nashville’s city council to get rid of its requirement. Nash argued successfully that a larger geographic area equals a larger talent pool from which to hire officers.
“In the case of Nashville, if you lived in bedroom communities like Franklin or Brentwood or Mount Juliet, there’s some very very good candidates there for the job,” says Nash.
“Often times people would get married, a wife or a husband might have property or a home already outside the county, so that means you are going to end up having to move,” says Nash. “People really wanted the freedom to move where they wished and still be employed here.”
NEW ORLEANS —“BLEEDING BLUE”
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 and floods ravaged the city, throngs of police and other first responders left. There was also a shortage of housing. So the city suspended its residency requirement. In the decade since, there’s been difficulty generating a pool of qualified applicants from within the city limits. In 2014, the requirement was removed altogether.
“We were bleeding blue,” says Yvette Thierry, a police reform activists. “I understand from their perspective that they were just trying to get more recruits, but being a native and someone who grew up in this city, I think residency is very important to the police department.”
“How’s the trust level gonna go up when you allowing outsiders to come in and police other people’s community with no investment?”
— Yvette Thierry
Thierry, like many black New Orleanians, has had her share of negative experiences with the police. Her mentally ill brother-in-law ended up dead after a 911 call. Her son has been stopped by the police several times, for what she says was “driving while black.”
“We did a survey back in 2007 where overwhelmingly people said they didn’t trust the police. That hasn’t changed. People still don’t trust the police,” says Thierry.
“And now you bring in people outside the community and (put) badges on them,” says Thierry. “How’s the trust level gonna go up when you allowing outsiders to come in and police other people’s community with no investment?”
DIVERSITY AND RECRUITMENT—THE ELUSIVE KEYS TO SUCCESS
One of the ideas behind residency requirements is that they help create a police force as diverse as the citizens of the city they patrol. But Flowers, from FiveThirtyEight.com, looked at the numbers, and found that might not be happening.
Flower’s analyzed the 75 largest police departments in the US, to see whether those with residency requirements had a more racially representative police force. For example, if a city’s population was 40 percent black, and 30 percent Asian, the police would mirror those same numbers, 40 percent black and 30 percent Asian.
“One of the things we found is diversity does help,” explains Flowers. “It seems like there is a correlation between the more diverse a police department is, the better there’s a reduction in police misconduct, and there’s more trust from the community to the police force.”
Flowers says the diversity of the police force creates a kind of institutional change, making it less insular and open to community feedback.
But against all conventional wisdom he found that police departments that required officers to live in the city they patrol, actually had less diverse police forces.
“Going into this study me and the co-author thought ‘hey, I assume that this is a positive effect on police diversity,’” says Flowers. “So it was a little surprising that the data didn’t back it up.”
Flowers thinks the diversity issues existed before the residency requirements, so the rules didn’t cause a lack of diversity. But those requirements also didn’t solve the problem, or reduce the distrust either. That’s likely one reason that Black Lives Matter, and the growing movement for police reform across the country, are not prioritizing residency requirements as part of their call for change.
So what can police departments do to get that diverse police force, which is clearly an asset? Flowers, and many others, say the real key is recruitment.
On a sunny spring afternoon, the street in front of the Oakland Police Department’s downtown headquarters is filled with music, information booths and dozens of men and women in blue. This is the OPD’s annual open house street fair, one of many opportunities to improve strained relations with the community.
“I got tired of seeing people that I’ve arrested in front of my house.”
— Officer Charles Stone
“We are really truly trying to recruit people in an agency that’s being run by the people, for the people of Oakland,” says Sergeant Mildred Oliver. She sits at a table promoting the police activities league and the Explorers program—both are efforts to expose children to police officers and what they do, in hopes that one day, some of those homegrown kids might want to join the force.
Oliver has been on the force for 18 years. She was born and raised here, and is part of that 9% of the force that lives in the city.
“I’m not saying that only Oaklanders can understand Oaklanders, but it gives us more credibility as a department, where we can say that we can go out in the community and recruit and we grow our own,” says Oliver.
Oakland used to have a residency requirement, but in 1974, California legislators amended the state’s constitution, making the geographic restrictions illegal. Suddently cities and counties had to allow officers to live wherever they wanted. Today, some of Oakland’s officers live more than 100 miles away.
So what does Oakland born and raised Officer Stone feel about law enforcement coming in from the suburbs, or further, patrolling his hometown? Turns out that the city of Oakland is no longer where he calls home.
“I got tired of seeing people that I’ve arrested in front of my house,” Stone explains. “Especially now that I have a wife and three kids. I don’t want there to be any trail back to my home where I sleep.“
Stone says he’s been followed home, which was frightening. So like more than 90 percent of his colleagues, Stone saved up some money and moved to the suburbs.
He now lives in a place with little traffic and kids playing outside and riding bicycles “It’s peaceful, which is good,” he says.
Stones concerns are common among police officers that flee the urban core: Raising kids in a safe neighborhood, with good schools and a lower cost of living. But criminologist John Penny says the quality of life justification only exacerbates the divide between police and urban communities.
“If police officers don’t want to live in a city that they work in, then I think we have a crisis and a serious situation,” says Penny.
“If you’re a police officer, you don’t want to live in the city (near) the people that you are supposed to be protecting, then how do you think they feel about you in terms of your attitude towards the city?” asks Penny. “Would you want to go to a hospital where the doctors and nurses say, ‘I would never use this hospital? ‘”
But despite calls for more local hiring, there’s no real movement to overturn California’s state law banning residency requirements. That’s just fine with officer Stone, who says residency rules are “silly.”
“Why? Because if I move outside the city limits I won’t be able to do this job as effectively as somebody who lives within the city limits? That’s crap,” Stone says. “If that would had been a stipulation when I was hired, I wouldn’t be here. I’d be working for someplace that didn’t have that rule. And they’d have lost out on a good guy.”
And that, in a way, is what it comes down to. Would Oakland’s police department be better off with officer Stone, or without him? He’s black—where does that factor in? Or is it simply important that he’s a good man, and a good cop?
PART II: Interview with Annie Campbell Washington, Oakland City Council
Annie Campbell Washington was elected to the Oakland City Council in November 2014 and took office this past January. Life of the Law’s Executive Producer Nancy Mullane asked Washington about building trust between police and residents in a city where residency requirements are against the law.
WASHINGTON: It has been eight exciting months. It’s never a dull moment in Oakland, and I just love the city of Oakland. I love the people there and I feel like this is an amazing opportunity for me to serve people.
MULLANE: In Commuter Cops, Oakland Police Officer Charles Stone has decided to live outside the city of Oakland where he says his children can ride their bikes safely. What does that sound like to you?
WASHINGTON: I believe we need to be searching for the best individuals to serve our city as police officers. And what does that mean? I think that means we need a diverse force. I think that means we need to be racially diverse because Oakland is one of the most diverse cities in the country. We really need to seek that out.
We need to be serious about recruiting a diverse population. We need to recruit more women. That’s where we are putting our focus in the last few years in Oakland. How do we recruit additional African American police officers? How do we recruit additional Latino police officers? How do we recruit additional women? And in the most recent class, we 28% Oakland residents as recruits. We had 25% African American recruits. I think it shows we are putting a real focus on diversity and recruitment of diversity.
The reason I think I think it is so important you hire a diverse workforce is I think it automatically gives you a police force that can better understand the diverse neighborhoods that we have in Oakland.
MULLANE: If the State of California is saying you can not require that police officers live in Oakland, do you think people in Oakland accept that?
WASHINGTON: I think all of us would prefer to have more police officers live in Oakland than outside. I don’t that it predicts a good police officer to know that they’re living in Oakland, but do think there’s a sense of wanting to see police officers in their daily lives. Because we’ve had historically strained relationships between the community and the police in Oakland, I think that one thing that could help that is having police officers actually live in the community and understand the community at that level, because you understand the community in a different way if your child is going to the neighborhood school and you’re interacting with your neighbors in the evenings over neighbor things as well as work.
Would I go as far as to say residency requirements would insure that we have good police community relations? No. I wouldn’t say that. So much more goes into strong community police relations beyond where the police officer lives.
I wouldn’t want to have residency requirements only because I think it would mean that we would lose certain people. We would lose certain good individuals who either couldn’t afford to live in Oakland or didn’t want to live in Oakland, because at the end of the day, they want to turn off and go home.
MULLANE: What can you as a city councilperson do to bring Stone back?
WASHINGTON: That’s the biggest thing for me is making sure we’re building an Oakland where anyone who wants to live in Oakland can afford to live in Oakland. That anyone who wants to live in Oakland and is living in Oakland feels safe and feels like they have an excellent school to send their child to. Those are the whole reasons why I’m doing the work that I’m doing.
To go back to Officer Stone, we may not ever be able to bring every single police officer here to live in Oakland, which is why I don’t think a residency requirement is the right thing. I don’t think it’s the right thing to require because there may be individual reasons, which is what I heard from Officer Stone, there are reasons why a police officer specifically might not want to live in the city where they’re working. But I do think that we want to keep as many police officers, as many public servants working in the city of Oakland, living in the city of Oakland as possible. And to do that we have to make sure they can afford to live there. That they’re safe in their neighborhoods and they have wonderful schools.
MULLANE: It sounds like the move forward is to take this opportunity of an influx of new funding, new economic opportunity in Oakland to create a safer Oakland. At the same time keeping it diverse. Not allowing gentrification to change the face and core identity of the city. That must be a real challenge as well.
WASHINGTON: Absolutely. It is because what we’re really talking about, I believe, is systemic racism and to really make a change in certain neighborhoods is to state outloud, ‘We have failed in certain neighborhoods.’ We have not delivered services equitably across the city and those are the types of things that we’ll have to come together at the city government level to do. It’s challenging work but I think Oakland is the perfect place to lead on this. I think Oakland is the perfect place to say we have not done this well in the past. We recognize that neighborhoods that are predominantly black and brown where services are not delivered. Where streets are not safe. Where schools are not necessarily successful and we must figure out a way to deliver services equitably.
Commuting Cops was reported by Andrew Stelzer and edited by Jim Gates with sound design and production by Jonathan Hirsch. Producers Simone Seiver and Kirsten Jusewicz-Haidle provided post-production support. Special thanks to Annie Campbell Washington.
Our advising scholar on Commuting Cops was Elizabeth Joh, a professor of law at UC Davis School of Law. Professor Joh’s scholarship focuses on criminal procedure and policing, with a special emphasis on the DNA collection, undercover policing, and new surveillance technologies. Before joining the Davis faculty in 2003, Professor Joh served as a law clerk to the Honorable Stephen Reinhardt of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. She received both her Ph.D. in Law and Society and J.D. from New York University, and her B.A. in literature from Yale University.
This episode of Life of the Law was funded in part by grants from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, the Open Society Foundation, the Law and Society Association, the Proteus Fund and the National Science Foundation.
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