As demands to defund the police continue to garner attention, activists and legislators are quietly repackaging older proposals, including a requirement for police officers to live in the cities where they serve. Residency requirements are often defended on the theory that officers who live in a community will be more likely to understand its residents and their way of life, but reformers also aim to create departments that mirror their cities’ racial and ethnic makeup. Such rules are unnecessary and, even if passed, unlikely to succeed.
Residency requirements were once commonplace, but early twentieth-century progressives considered them dangerous sources of corruption, with urban politicians using jobs to reward supporters. To achieve their goal of professionalizing policing, reformers severed hiring, assignment, and promotion from local control by broadening the applicant pool to include nonresidents. They also instituted civil-service testing and other preemployment requirements.
In 1976, more than half of the largest U.S. cities still imposed residency requirements, either by municipal regulation or by state statute. By 2003, though, after court challenges and union battles, only Philadelphia and Chicago of the (then) six largest police departments required residency; New York, Detroit, Houston, and Los Angeles did not.
In Chicago, the 100-year-old requirement has not created a diverse police department. Notwithstanding the support of two mayors and an African-American chief of police who encouraged blacks to apply, the department’s 2019 hiring spree resulted in a reduction in the percentage of black officers. About 32 percent of Chicago’s population is white, but whites fill about half the positions in the 13,000-member department. Hispanic cops (of any race) outnumber black cops by about 800, though each demographic group constitutes about 29 percent of the city’s residents.
Philadelphia’s requirements have also failed to deliver results. Since 2008, the city has mandated that employees move into the city within six months of starting work. But as of June 2020, police recruits must live in the city for a year before they can enter a class. Concerns that residents made up only about half of the police academy class—with many coming from the suburbs and some from Florida, Chicago, and New York—were widely publicized, but legislators cared more about demographics than about geography. The city’s population is 44 percent black, but about 33 percent of cops are black. And while white residents account for 34 percent of the population, they make up 57 percent of the department’s 6,500 officers. The department is currently led by an African-American female chief, but the share of black officers has been falling since 2000, when a consent decree requiring the city to hire a certain number of black officers with each recruiting class expired. The 2020 class continues the downward trend: 70 percent of the recruits were white, while only 18 percent and 12 percent were black or Hispanic, respectively. Local applicants have complained of discrimination in the hiring process, noting that while only 30 percent of candidates who take the reading and agility tests are white, more than 70 percent of them get selected for the academy.
The New York City Police Department does not require cops to live in the five boroughs. Upon being hired, though, they must live in the city or in the nearby counties of Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Rockland, Orange, or Putnam. This may change. Currently, four candidates—Shaun Donovan, Kathryn Garcia, Andrew Yang, and Ray McGuire—of the more than two dozen running for mayor have called for a city residency requirement. Eric Adams, a retired NYPD captain who spent much of his career fighting the department from within, has not joined them, preferring to encourage, rather than mandate, city residency. But the NYPD is already doing this: while its plan for police reform does not include the words “residency requirement,” it states that residency in the city will be “a more significant factor in hiring police officers” by increasing their testing point bonus. The only other factor recognized as raising a candidate’s score is military service.
More substantial change requires state approval, and state lawmakers have joined the push. In July 2020, State Senator Kevin Parker (D-Brooklyn) reintroduced a bill requiring all New York City police officers—technically, officers living in any city with more than 1 million residents, of which Gotham is the state’s only one—hired after January 1, 2021, to live there. Parker says that the requirement will cultivate better community connections between police and residents. Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz (D-Queens) has introduced a companion bill, also saying that it will improve neighborhood policing.
But neither residency and racial diversity nor residency and recruitment are synonymous. Despite Police Commissioner Dermot Shea’s recent apology for the NYPD’s “many years of racist policies and practices,” the department—which lacks a residency requirement—is majority-minority. White cops represent about 46 percent of the almost 36,000 uniformed officers, though they make up 34 percent of city residents. Black officers, according to Shea, were about 15 percent of the department, despite being about 24 percent of the population. (Shea neglected to mention that police officers must be U.S. citizens, which eliminates many black immigrants who have not yet obtained citizenship.) Meantime, Hispanics, who make up about 29 percent of New Yorkers, are also 29 percent of cops, while Asian cops fall short of their percentage of the population (about 14 percent, but 9 percent of cops). Race aside, about 49 percent of NYPD officers live in the city.
In any case, tinkering with residency may not achieve New York legislators’ stated goals. Do they really want more white applicants from New York City’s boroughs of Staten Island and Queens and fewer minority applicants from Hempstead or Yonkers? If their rationale is simply that they want those serving the community to live in it, what about firefighters, teachers, and City University of New York faculty members, or even doctors practicing at NYC Health + Hospitals Corporation facilities?
The push for residency requirements neglects these questions, instead singling out police officers while indulging in crude generalizations. That’s reason enough to oppose the idea. Yet even if reformers succeed in passing these laws, they would be unlikely to achieve their stated—and unstated—objectives.
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