Research shows that requiring officers to live in a community does nothing to improve their performance or community relations

Police reform is, perhaps, the biggest policy debate in the United States at present. As I wrote recently:

There are things we can do. Experience and research shows, among other things, that more restrictive state and local policies governing police use of force are associated with significantly lower rates of police shootings/killings by police; that police departments that get more military weapons from the federal government kill more people; and that cities with worse police union contracts – in terms of purging misconduct records and reinstating fired officers, for example – have higher police violence rates. These are the beginnings of a practical agenda for police reform.

Things that don’t help

And then there are things that we know don’t work. One of these is residency requirements for officers.

As City Pages argues in a recent article titled ‘Crybaby cop explains why she shouldn’t have to live in the community she polices;

Only about 8 percent of its police live in Minneapolis zip codes, per a 2017 Star Tribune investigation. That’s a problem, advocates say, because you’re not as likely to empathize or engage with the people you police as you would be if they were your neighbors.

The problem is, as USA Today reports:

…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.

These are reform measures, incidentally, which I would fully support. USA Today continues:

…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. 

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…

Don’t let extremists like City Pages wreck the debate

Towards the end of the article, City Pages claims that the ‘Crybaby cop’ is “actually making a pretty good case for abolishing the police.”

She isn’t, of course, but ‘abolishing the police’ is both stupid and unpopular policy. Polls show that Minneapolis residents want more police on the streets and that Americans don’t want to defund the police. The Star Tribune recently carried an article titled ‘On Minneapolis’ North Side, residents question calls to defund police‘:

“I know on one side of the city, it looks beautiful for defunding to happen,” [Minneapolis resident Keion] Franklin said from the parking lot of Merwin Liquors as investigators marked shell casings that fell inches from where his car had driven. “But here on this side of the city, I’m scared if you defund the police … Is it going to turn into World War III over here?”

Surveying the block, Steven Belton, president and CEO of the Urban League Twin Cities, noted a “significant, dramatic uptick” in violent crime since June 7, when nine Minneapolis City Council members publicly pledged support for defunding police.

Belton called the move irresponsible, even as he supports transforming the department. He said those council members had not consulted with people who have a stake in the black community, particularly those on the North Side.

Violent people “have used that sound bite — ‘defund the police’ — as an indication that there is no consequence, that there is no policing, and [concluded] that they are free to do whatever they want to do,” Belton said.

There is, at present, a broad consensus in America that policing reform is needed. That consensus will shatter if extremists, like those at City Pages, succeed in hijacking the cause and pushing stupid, unpopular policies like defunding the police.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.