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Local Police Fight Residency Rules


Police officers in several major cities say they want the right to live out of town. From Philadelphia to Milwaukee to New Orleans, police are fighting a requirement that they live inside city limits. They say they want to do as nearly 54 million Americans do, according to the 2000 census, and commute from elsewhere. They're hoping their departments will follow St. Louis, which is the most recent city to drop its residency rule for police. Matt Sepic of member station KWMU reports.

MATT SEPIC reporting:

After a day at the St. Louis Police Department's canine training school, Officer Mike Perkins returns home to his wife and two children. They just bought an old brick gingerbread house in a well-kept city neighborhood and have made major renovations. Perkins and five-year-old Grace(ph) play with Rick(ph), a drug-sniffing German shepherd that also doubles as the family pet.

GRACE: Pretty boy.

Officer MIKE PERKINS (St. Louis Police Department): Sit.


Off. PERKINS: Speak.

(Dog barks)

SEPIC: Officer Perkins says he enjoys living in this quiet city neighborhood, but he's relieved to know he now has the option to move out of the city if he ever wants to.

Off. PERKINS: It was a rule that they could change with the stroke of a pen and a vote that cost the department nothing and absolutely increased morale 100 percent.

SEPIC: For three decades, local ordinance dictated where St. Louis police could live. That's not a restriction any private workers face, but in St. Louis and many other cities, all city employees, from trash collectors on up to the mayor, have to live within city limits. At a Police Board meeting two weeks ago, Mayor Francis Slay argued unsuccessfully to keep the rule in place for police.

Mayor FRANCIS SLAY (St. Louis, Missouri): I believe fundamentally that people who work for the city of St. Louis, who get a paycheck from the taxpayers of the city, should live in the city.

SEPIC: But a board member appointed by Missouri's new Republican governor cast the deciding vote, marking the end of a 30-year battle between the local police union and city leaders. But the restriction was lifted only for police, not for other city workers, like firefighters or trash collectors. But neighborhood activists across the country argue that police officers living within city limits deter crime. Jamala Rogers is with the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression in St. Louis. Standing in the lobby of city hall, she says she's sad to see the demise of the residency rule here.

Ms. JAMALA ROGERS (Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression): If you live in a neighborhood, you want to make sure that everything is all right, that the public safety is up at its optimum level. If you don't live there, then you really don't have an investment in terms of what happens there.

SEPIC: But police say there's no bigger investment they could make than putting their lives on the line. Police argue they aren't paid for 24/7 duty, and many say 911 is the best number to call in an emergency, not the off-duty officer next door. David Klinger is a former Los Angeles police officer who now teaches criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He says most officers didn't choose their line of work because of any particular civic allegiance.

Mr. DAVID KLINGER (University of Missouri, St. Louis): People have a variety of motivators, and for many people, it's a commitment to a profession as opposed to a commitment to a community. And they believe in it, they've committed their lives to it, they have made sacrifices to be cops, and they're going to do a good job no matter where they're working and no matter where they're living.

SEPIC: He also says police generally want to live as far as possible from the people they arrest. Klinger made that argument to the Boston City Council several years ago, after several officers' homes in the city were fire-bombed. Jay Broderick is with the Patrolmen's Association in Boston. He says most of the frustration with that city's residency rule has to do with issues like public schools and affordable housing.

Mr. JAY BRODERICK (Boston Patrolmen's Association): To buy a single-family in the neighborhoods that most of the policemen or firemen live in--you can't even really look at one under 300 1/4, 350. And two-families in the neighborhood that I live in sell routinely anywhere around a half million dollars.

SEPIC: About three-fourths of St. Louis police officers are now eligible to move within an hour of their station, if they choose. More will be able to leave after they've put in seven years on the force. But even the most ardent supporters of the old residency rule acknowledge the mass city exodus they feared won't likely come to pass, certainly not for officers like Mike Perkins. He says with a new house and two kids in a nearby parochial school, at this point he has too much invested in his neighborhood to just pack up and leave. For NPR News, I'm Matt Sepic in St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Matt Sepic