Wednesday, October 08, 2014

rule of law: reexamining residency requirements for overseers


fivethirtyeight |  Pittsburgh’s police force is at loggerheads with the city it serves. Since 1902, the city has required police officers to live within the city limits, but an arbitration panel recently ruled in favor of allowing officers to live within 25 air miles of downtown. City officials want the requirement to remain in place, as do the people of Pittsburgh, who voted overwhelmingly in a referendum last year to keep it.

Residency requirements are hugely unpopular among police officers in Pittsburgh and in other cities with similar rules. Many cities and states have contested the constitutionality of these strictures on the grounds that they violate freedom of travel and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Even where they are in place, they are routinely flouted. Today, only 15 of America’s largest police departments have a strict residency requirement for police officers, and a majority of cops live outside the cities they serve.1

Residency requirements for police officers have long been tied to better relations between cops and the communities they’re meant to protect. They continue to be seen by activists and politicians as a social good, part of the struggle to improve police force diversity. These concerns remain significant in Pittsburgh and in cities across the country, where demographic gaps plague police forces and are often linked to tensions with the public. The fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in August threw into relief the lack of representation for minority groups on the police force there and in hundreds of other departments.
On that measure, Pittsburgh isn’t doing great: 25 percent of city residents are black, but only 12 percent of the police force is, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis. The police force is 85 percent white, even though whites make up only 65 percent of the city’s population.

Pittsburgh is far from an outlier — a look at the demographic data of 75 cities and their police forces reveals it’s as average as it gets.2 Although it’s impossible to establish causation between requiring cops to live in the city and the demographics of the police force in Pittsburgh or anywhere else, our analysis does show that departments with the rule tend to reflect their communities less than departments without it.

Residency requirements for city workers date to the turn of the 20th century, when aldermen would staff municipalities with a cadre of friends. Reformers in the 1920s argued that these requirements kept the best candidates from getting jobs and that they fostered a culture of corruption that pervaded cities and their governments. The laws were allowed to lapse until the 1970s, when the requirements had something of a renaissance. They were reintroduced and justified as a way of keeping tax revenue in a city and arresting the flight of the middle class to the suburbs. And according to Werner Z. Hirsch and Anthony M. Rufolo, two economists who wrote about residency requirements in 1983, the rules were also thought to increase a police officer’s “interest in the results of his work.” This interest was specified by Peter Eisinger, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in a 1980 paper, in which he described the requirement as satisfying “the desire to create greater social symmetry between public servants and their clientele.”