The many challenges and benefits of police residency requirements
Police officers who live outside of the community they patrol can become like mercenaries who clock in and out before going home, says Santa Cruz Police Deputy Chief Steve Clark.
This image aligns with concerns the 11-member Watsonville Youth City Council (WYCC) brought to the table during a December interview with Good Times.
Only about 10 percent of Watsonville’s 100-person police force lives in the city, with many living as far as Salinas, according to Watsonville Police Chief Manuel Solano. Youth City Council Mayor Dulce Sixtos says this makes her peers less comfortable when faced with the task of speaking with a uniformed officer.
“Police that don’t live in Watsonville don’t know the issues that we deal with here,” Sixtos said. “Instead of understanding, they judge, and that is what makes the youth not feel comfortable approaching them.”
In light of the group’s plea for police residency, GT went in search of residency rules that do or don’t exist across Santa Cruz County.
Residency requirements exist for elected officials in the county, just like a member of Congress must have residency in the state and district they represent.
However, police residency requirements have a much more varied appearance in communities across the county and nation.
Some dictate that officers must live within the city limits where they patrol, while others sketch a radius around the community to make sure officers are at least nearby.
Like Watsonville, the City of Santa Cruz currently has no such requirement, with officers living as far as Tracy, says Clark.
“It used to be that you had to live within a 60-mile radius of the department,” he says. “In the mid ’90s they changed that to a limit of [a] one-hour driving distance.”
He agrees with the WYCC that having police live in their department’s area adds to their concern for the health and safety of the community. However, he adds that the cost of living-to-salary ratio in Santa Cruz often pushes officers to build their lives in places such as Santa Clara County.
“A lot of times officers will leave us for jobs in Roseville where they make better pay,” says Clark. “Then they send pictures of the house they bought there for the same price of a small condo here, and other officers see that.”
This is the reality for most city police departments in the county, even Scotts Valley, which is a favorite location for officers who do live in the county to raise their families. Since 2007, they have had a relatively high number of retirements within their tiny force of about two dozen officers. Currently they require officers to live less than a 40-minute drive from the department. This allows more flexibility for the approximately half dozen new officers to choose where they spend their off-the-clock time.
“I would love nothing more than for these new officers to settle down here, but sometimes it is difficult because Scotts Valley is so expensive,” says Scotts Valley Police Chief John Weiss.
The combination of a small tax base and expensive housing leads them to live in Santa Clara County where they can “get more home for their dollar,” in Weiss’ words. Ironically, he adds that the higher salaries in the larger departments over the hill makes Scotts Valley a favorite destination for officers from that area.
Clark says starting pay for an officer in Santa Cruz who has completed the academy is $5,665 per month. Median house prices in Santa Cruz have hovered around $500,000 for years now, making recruiting qualified officers very difficult if residency requirements were more stringent, he says.
The limits on commute times that now make up most residency requirements in the county are calculated by typing an officer’s address into Google Maps, according to Weiss. These loose requirements can pose challenges in the face of large disasters when officers are called in and needed the quickest.
“During the 1989 [Loma Prieta] earthquake it took me three hours to get to town from my home in San Jose,” says Clark. “Then I was here for nine days without returning [home].”
Officers’ comfort level and quality of life are also considerations when cities or counties propose laws dictating where they can live. Clark cited a 2007 case when a firebomb was placed under a police officer’s patrol car while it was parked outside of his Santa Cruz home.
“It was nice to live in San Jose and not chance an encounter with a person I’ve fought with or a relative of someone I just put in jail,” he says.
Scotts Valley Mayor Jim Reed doesn’t buy that as a reason for Scotts Valley officers to live outside the area.
“That is just life in small town,” he says. “If you have a bad interaction with someone, you are bound to run into them somewhere.”
Police unions have challenged residency requirement laws in jurisdictions across the country on this basis, as well as the question of whether it is constitutional for employers to tell their workers where they can live.
In the late 1800s, residency requirements were used by political leaders in cities across the country to shore up support for their reelection. By limiting the pool of applicants to their supporters in their jurisdictions, they more easily held office for consecutive terms and filled the local bureacracies with these people.
By the 1920s, progressives had abolished most of these laws. Today they exist hardly anywhere. Supporters of residency requirements claim that officers and residents will interact more peacefully if they come from the same community. However, that does not necessarily equal a lower crime rate.
Milwaukee demands that all police, and school teachers for that matter, live within the city. Despite keeping the law in place to this point, they have a crime rate several times higher than the national average in the categories of murder, robbery and other high-level offenses.
Milwuakee and Chicago, which were meccas of machine politics in the industry-dominated 19th century, are the last two of the nation’s 50 largest cities to have such laws.
In a new twist on the corruption related to residency requirements, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is fighting to quash Milwaukee’s version of these laws while letting other cities like Racine and Green Bay keep theirs in tact. Spolier alert: the Milwaukee Police Association has supported Walker through his entire recall saga, despite him wanting to make bargaining nearly impossible for other public employees across the sate.
City managers have added fuel to these debates by beating residency obstacles for their own positions in recent years. In 2010, the Capitola City Council waived its residency requirement for then-incoming city manager Jamie Goldstein, who lives in Santa Cruz.
The inland California City of Manteca also exempted their city manager from residency requirements in 2009, prompting police officers to raise the issue because they said that they had recently lost 12 officers to the restricition being imposed more strictly in their direction.
Scotts Valley Mayor Jim Reed say he can think of six to eight officers, most of whom serve in Silicon Valley, that live in his local neighborhood alone.
“They like it here. You know the bumper sticker that reads, ‘Keep Santa Cruz Weird?” he asks. “Scotts Valley is just a bit less weird than the rest of the county.”
Although Reed would prefer to have officers live in their jurisdictions so that they know the community better, he also respects their right to choose where they live.
“The most important thing as a policy maker is that we get the best possible people, especially in law enforcement,” says Reed.
Weiss and Clark agree with the WYCC that residency requirements can offer the community some benefits, but did not signal that they woud push to reinstate past ordinances for fear that it would extinguish their recruiting abilities. Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Deputy April Skalland did not return calls to explain what, if any, residency requirements exist for their department.