Should Cops Have to Live Where They Work?

The question of whether police officers should live in the communities they patrol has a long and contentious history.

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Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol. (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

“This is my neighborhood,” said Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol last Sunday. “You are my family, you are my friends, and I am you.”

Johnson was speaking at Greater Grace Church in Ferguson, Missouri, where he had been brought in by the governor last week to lead law enforcement efforts in the wake of the killing of teenager Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer.

Johnson’s simple willingness to walk among the protesters and talk to them one-on-one were enough to make headlines when contrasted with the militarized stance that had characterized police action in Ferguson to that point. Though protests, rioting, and looting have continued in the days since, his arrival on the scene sparked a dramatic shift in the mood in Ferguson.

That change might have been rooted in some fundamental facts about who Johnson is and where he comes from. As he said in his Sunday talk, he knows Ferguson from the inside out. He grew up there, and now lives just across the city line in Florissant.

Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Michael Brown under contested circumstances on August 9th, reportedly lives in Crestwood, more than half an hour’s drive away, in a community that looks very different. In the 2010 census, Crestwood was more than 96 percent white, and Ferguson more than 67 percent black. (Florissant, incidentally, is 69 percent white.)

Now, some type of incentive to encourage local residency for Ferguson police is one of the possible reforms on the table as the city goes into its twelfth day of civil unrest.

The question of whether police officers should live in or near the communities they patrol has a long and contentious history. Residency requirements for police and other municipal employees were once much more common in American cities, but they are becoming increasingly rare in the wake of policy changes and court challenges. One example is Ohio, where in 2009, in a move perceived as a tough blow to cities such as Cleveland, the state Supreme Court upheld a law striking down residency requirements. The city of St. Louis relaxed its residency requirements for cops back in 2005.

For many who oppose such requirements, it’s a simple issue of a person’s right to live wherever he or she chooses, without government interference. “Nobody should be forced to give up their constitutional rights to live where they want to live just because they work in the city," Republican state Sen. Timothy Grendell of Chesterland, Ohio, told USA Today in 2006. There’s also an economic argument: In cities that are flourishing economically, it can be hard to live on a civil servant’s salary.

Residency policies, according to some critics, are mostly about increasing a city’s tax base rather than contributing any real benefit to the quality of policing. But it’s also true that increasing challenges to residency requirements for police have been linked to the destabilization of communities that once were anchored by public servants earning steady salaries.

Detroit is one example of what can happen when cops are freed from these requirements. After the state of Michigan eliminated the city’s residency restrictions in 1999, many officers started moving out. By 2011, incoming mayor David Bing noted, more than half of the city’s police lived outside of Detroit. He even instituted policies offering financial incentives to make coming back more enticing.

Milwaukee’s mayor Tom Barrett cited Detroit as a cautionary tale when he defended his city’s residency requirements—in place for more than 70 years—against a challenge from Republican governor Scott Walker and GOP lawmakers in 2011. “Eleven years ago, the city of Detroit lifted the residency requirement for police officers and today, 53 percent of officers live outside of the city,” Barrett was quoted as saying by the Milwaukee Business Journal. “If we want the tax base of Milwaukee to resemble the tax base of Detroit, this is the way to go.”

A law ending the Wisconsin requirements was subsequently passed and signed into law by Walker, and immediately challenged in court by Milwaukee. In January 2014, a Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge ruled against the city. Milwaukee is not enforcing the requirement as the case wends its way through the courts.

In the meantime, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, city records show that 246 Milwaukee employees had moved out of town by July of this year. The moves may have reflected a distance that was already there. Before the residency requirements were eliminated, the Journal Sentinel paraphrased the head of the Milwaukee police union as saying “some officers are also concerned about living in the same community as people they have arrested.”

In Ferguson, the already complicated question of residency is further muddied by the fragmentation of municipalities in suburban St. Louis, as well as the pervasive racial segregation in the region—some of the most extreme in the nation.

More than 14 years ago, Governing magazine senior editor Alan Ehrenhalt wrote about the demise of Detroit’s residency requirement and the increasing disconnect between police officers and the communities they serve. “One has to wonder whether the anti-residency movement isn't part of something larger: a subtle reaction against the idea of old-fashioned geographical community,” he wrote.  “We keep hearing … communities will be virtual—America will really just be one big chat room. In that case, what's the difference whether the cop on your neighborhood beat lives in your city, or in a suburb 20 miles away where his family can have a bigger yard?”

The recent events in Ferguson demonstrate that the difference may be very real. For those trying to bridge the distance between police officers and the people they are sworn to serve and protect, simple geography might not be a bad place to start.

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.