Should police officers be required to live in the cities they patrol? There’s no evidence it matters

Protests that have swept the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death have prompted calls to limit police funding, hold officers accountable for dangerous restraints — and even limit where they can live.

Some activists want officers to be required to live in the cities they patrol, arguing it will make officers more culturally competent, diversify police forces and improve community relations.

“It’s a plus if we have officers who live in the city, they grew up in the city, they have a stake in the city because it’s home,” said Kenyatta Johnson, a member of Philadelphia’s City Council, which introduced a bill Thursday to restore the city’s police residency requirement. “It goes a long way to building community trust.”

But no recent research shows residency requirements improve relations between cops and the residents they’re sworn to protect.

“Throughout our research, we have never encountered a shred of evidence that requiring or incentivizing police officers to live in the communities in which they work has any positive effect on the quality of policing,” Communities United Against Police Brutality, a Twin Cities-based organization, says on its website.

Instead, law enforcement experts and community activists say lawmakers should focus on measures such as ending the use of no-knock warrants and chokeholds, which have led to recent deaths of African Americans.

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A peaceful vigil at the George Floyd memorial at the Cup Foods Market at the intersection of E. 38th Street and Chicago Ave on Monday, June, 1, 2020. George Floyd died in police custody on May 25, 2020 at this location.

The rise of residency requirements

Residency requirements for municipal employees — including teachers, police officers and firefighters — arose during the machine politics of the 19th century but fell out of fashion in the early 20th century, according to Peter Eisinger, a professor emeritus at the New School in New York City.

The policy had a renaissance in the U.S. during the 1970s. By 1980, nearly two-thirds of all cities with more than 250,000 residents had such laws, according to Eisinger’s 1980 study. At the time, cities were looking for ways to improve the diversity of the municipal workforce and limit white flight to the suburbs.

“People began to think that the municipal workforce, particularly police and teachers, ought to reflect the communities they serve,” Eisinger said. “The idea of a municipal workforce coming into the city from the suburbs smacked of colonialism. You had white employees coming in from the suburbs to teach largely minority schools.”

But residency requirements weren’t all about community relations. Many were introduced as a way of capturing the spending and taxes that local employees generate — the “local coffer theory,” Eisinger said.Get the Coronavirus Watch newsletter in your inbox.

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As the policies spread, some fought them. In 1976, a Philadelphia firefighter who was fired after he moved to New Jersey challenged the city’s requirement, but the United States Supreme Court upheld it.

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Police associations and unions have argued residency requirements limit the talent pool and breed corruption. In 2010, Philadelphia’s police union got the city to allow officers to reside outside city limits if they had been on the force for at least five years. The percentage of officers who live outside the city has risen since then, though most still live in Philadelphia.

Some city employees have flouted residency requirements. In March, the head of the police union for Kansas City, Missouri, alleged some officers were circumventing its rule by renting trailers in the city and keeping their real homes elsewhere. 

Though these rules have become less popular in recent years, some major cities still have them. Some policies give employees time to move into the city after they’re hired. Others allow officers to move out after a certain period of time. Some offer perks to those living in the city, such as additional points on entrance exams.

In a 2015 report on 21st-century policing, a federal task force recommended police departments institute “residency incentive programs” that provide officers housing in public housing neighborhoods as long as they fulfill public safety duties within the neighborhood.

An essential qualification? Or a distraction?

María Quiñones Sánchez, a member of the Philadelphia City Council who supports the residency requirement, said residency should factor into determining who’s qualified to serve a community. She and Johnson said their constituents have been demanding it.

“If you work for a government in a particular city, you should be a member of that community,” said Sánchez, who places residency requirements among her top five police reforms. “Who is qualified if not someone who is a member of an historically marginalized community? Don’t you want more people speaking different languages?”

But none of the seven law enforcement experts who spoke to USA TODAY could point to contemporary research showing residency requirements have a positive effect on police officer performance or community relations.

“Outside of when there’s a snowstorm and people live 50 miles away, that’s not an issue,” said Steve Nasta, a lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who spent more than three decades with the New York City Police Department. 

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When the Minneapolis City Council considered taking up residency requirements in 2017, the group Communities United Against Police Brutality recommended against it.

“We frequently hear from members of the community that they would not want to live in the same neighborhood as officers who have arrested, harassed or perhaps even abused them,” Michelle Gross, president of the group, wrote in a letter to the council.

Dave Bicking, a board member of the group, called residency requirements “a distraction from real reform.”

A 1999 study even found that residency requirements affected citizens’ perceptions of the police negatively.

“In the little research we’ve seen, it’s not clear that the residency requirement would improve community relations,” said Sarah Greenman, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said cities have been moving away from residency requirements.

“At a time when the policing profession is being challenged is the time to get the best applicants from wherever they live and wherever they decide to reside,” Wexler said. He argued the cost of living in large cities has made it difficult for officers to find housing there, and that officers may prefer their children attend schools in the suburbs.

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Armored members of the Minneapolis State Patrol stand guard in an intersection in front of burned out buildings in the Third Precinct of Minneapolis.

Even within cities, cops may live in separate neighborhoods

For about 100 years, Chicago has required police officers to live in the city, but that policy has been enforced sporadically. In 2010, about 88% of officers lived in the city. According to the Chicago Sun-Times in 2017, dozens of police officers had resigned or been reprimanded for residency issues since 1981.

The makeup of the Chicago police force today is not proportional to the demographics of the city as a whole, with a greater share of white officers than city residents. The city has suffered a number of notoriously corrupt cops and high-profile police-involved killings. In many neighborhoods, tensions between the police and residents run high.

Even within the city, officers tend to live in clusters outside their districts. Sunday, at a peace march in the South Side neighborhood of Chatham, which is predominantly African American, organizers railed against officers who live in the mostly white neighborhood of Beverly, just a few miles away.

Tamar Manasseh, who runs a community anti-violence initiative called Mothers Against Senseless Killing in the city’s Englewood neighborhood, argues that police residency requirements may be effective only if they require officers to live in the neighborhoods where they work.

“They need to live amongst the people they patrol, and all the sensitivity training in the world isn’t going to do anything for you,” Manasseh said. “You’d be less likely to crack a head if you know where they live and they know where you live. People who eat dinner with each other don’t kill each other.”

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Demonstrators march against racism and police brutality and to defund th Minneapolis Police Department on June 6, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. - Demonstrations are being held across the US following the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, while being arrested in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

How many cops live in the cities they patrol?

The most recent publicly available data suggests that in general, a majority of officers don’t live in the cities where they work, though the data is more than a decade old. 

On average, 31 percent of police officers were residents of the cities and towns they patrolled, according to a USA TODAY examination of U.S. Census data for 2006 to 2010 for 745 cities and towns. 

At the time, disparities in officer residency varied based on several factors, including the size and racial makeup of the cities and the race of the officer.

Larger cities tended to have higher percentages of officers who lived within the city limits. Some of them, such as Chicago and Philadelphia, required officers to live within the city or within a certain radius.

White police officers tended to live in the cities where they worked when those cities were majority-white, according to the USA TODAY analysis. White officers were also more likely to reside outside the city than their Black or Latino counterparts.

Overall, in communities where the nonwhite population was less than 10%, the average police residency rate was about 47%. But in majority nonwhite cities, it was only 27%.

In Minneapolis, where George Floyd died in police custody, just 8% of officers lived in the city in 2017, according to the Star-Tribune. Minneapolis police did not respond to a public-records request for an updated figure.

In New York City, which allows officers to live in one of the five boroughs or six approved counties, a far higher percentage of officers (61%) resided in the city, according to Census data. But, as in Minneapolis, there was a racial divide: More than three quarters of New York City’s Black and Latino officers lived in the city while less than half of the city’s white officers did.

Protesters take a knee at Borough Hall as part of a solidarity rally calling for justice over the death of George Floyd, and to highlight police brutality nationwide, Tuesday, June 9, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York.

More ‘research-backed options’ for police reform

There are better options for police reform — ones backed by research — than residency requirements, Greenman said. Several randomized studies have looked at the effect of having officers reinforce principles of procedural justice, such as representation, consistency and impartiality, in their interactions with people.

“When this is done, people are more likely to view the police as legitimate, have satisfaction with the police, accept the decisions that are made, and obey the law in the future,” Greenman said.

This week, Communities United Against Police Brutality outlined dozens of research-backed options that center on police accountability, training and data collection. Among them: requiring police officers to carry their own professional liability insurance; ensuring badges are visible and legible; and prosecuting excessive force, investigator misconduct and perjury.

Residency requirements were not an element of the sweeping package of police reforms that congressional Democrats proposed this week. Instead, the legislation aims to bolster police accountability through dashboard and body cameras, track aggressive officers with checkered pasts, end no-knock warrants and chokeholds, and limit the transfer of military weaponry to police departments.

In Minneapolis, activists and researchers collaborating under the banner of MPD150, which conducted a 150-year review of the police department, are calling for the abolition of police, an institution that the group says is founded in violence, corruption and white supremacy.

“What we have seen over the course of our historical research,” the group said, “is that reforms of any kind are ineffective for a number of reasons.”

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