Should police live where they patrol? Baton Rouge mulls residency rule

Still reeling from the deaths of three law enforcement officers and the fatal shooting of a black man by police, the city of Baton Rouge, La., is considering a residency requirement for new police recruits.

Jeffrey Dubinsky/Reuters
Motorcycle patrolmen arrive to the funeral services for police officer Matthew Gerald, one of three officers killed by a gunman on Sunday, at Healing Place Church in Baton Rouge, La., on Friday.

After a fraught couple weeks for Baton Rouge, La., law enforcement, which saw protests after the death of Alton Sterling at the hands of police, as well as murder of three law enforcement officers, some city council members are contemplating changes in city residency requirements for officers.

Two city council members are now sponsoring legislation that would require all Baton Rouge police officers hired after 2016 to live within the city. The measure, which the bill's sponsors say is intended to remedy racial imbalance within the police force, has met significant criticism from those who say it is an ill-timed measured aimed not at real change, but mere political gain. Nationally, residency requirements have long met opposition from those who say they are difficult to enforce, and can hurt departments’ abilities to recruit the best officers, though supporters say such requirements can go a long way toward fostering better relations between police and the community.

"Right now, we're in the midst of burying two city policeman and one sheriff's deputy," City Council member Buddy Amoroso told The Advocate. "The timing of this is absolutely despicable. This is not the time to have this dialogue, it is very shameful that this is even coming up to be introduced."

Not one of the three officers killed last Sunday was a Baton Rouge resident – all three lived in nearby Livingston Parish.

In the wake of the tragedy, Metro Council members Chauna Banks-Daniel and LaMont Cole proposed the residency requirement. Their rationale is that officers from the areas they police are better able to understand their communities, and therefore more likely to be accepted by the people they protect.

"The purpose is so that we can have a situation where we have officers and communities that are working together,” Ms. Banks-Daniel told The Advocate, “where there's a continual police presence in the community."

Proponents say that if such a measure is enacted, it could ease tensions and reduce crime. Currently, while over half of the city’s population is African-American, just 30 percent of the city’s police officers are, leaving the African-American population underrepresented in the law enforcement agency that polices them.

Critics, however, have the called the measure “political pandering” and say that restricting the applicant pool can cut qualified officers out of the running for positions where talent is sorely needed.

For the Baton Rouge Police Department, which already struggles with recruiting minority applicants, recruiting more from areas that already do not trust police is unlikely to be helpful, critics say.

Low police salaries are also a recruiting issue in Baton Rouge neighborhoods, say Baton Rouge police spokesmen.

New Orleans dispensed with a similar residency requirement in 2014 for recruiting reasons. In Massachusetts, Boston has had a difficult time enforcing its own residency requirement, finding that 13 out of Boston’s 22 top law enforcement officials live outside of the city. Other city employees, who are also technically required to live within city limits, flout the policy in droves.

“It seems to me a mistake to limit yourself to only those who can afford to live here or chose to live here,” Northeastern University economist Barry Bluestone told The Boston Globe. “It’s a little parochial to think we have to maintain our own population here and if you are not a Bostonian, you can’t work for the city. I think we should be thinking regionally.”

The city of Memphis has seen the negative results that residency requirements can have on recruiting new law enforcement officers first hand, after a residency requirement proposal prompted the police department to examine its recruits. The city saw 293 applications in its initial round of recruiting for its 122nd class of police officers. Just under half of those applicants would be disqualified if residency requirements were enacted.

“I just don’t want to do anything that impedes our efforts to recruit good men and women,” Memphis Police Department interim director Michael Rallings told the Commercial Appeal. “I don’t think it matters where an officer lives right now because we need those police officers.”

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