Should SPD Officers Be Required to Live in Seattle?

Should police officers be required to live in the city they serve?

It's a debate that's played out nationally over the last decade, and one receiving renewed attention in Seattle, where only 18 percent of officers live inside city limits. That means the vast majority--82 percent, according to the city's personnel department--live in outlying towns and commute to work.

Mayor Mike McGinn broached the idea in February during his State of the City speech, and as the SPD copes with a federal civil-rights investigation, the possibility of a residency requirement has again entered the public arena.

Supporters say officers who live in Seattle better understand the people they're policing.

Cops who live in outlying areas, says Nicole Gaines, president of the local chapter of the Loren Miller Bar Association, "drive to their home in Tulalip or get on the ferry to Bainbridge, so there's no real connection to the city, because it's not their kids going to city schools or being gunned down on the streets."

Miller's association, a statewide civil-rights organization that's assisting the U.S. Department of Justice with its investigation, hasn't taken an official position on a residency requirement yet, she says, but it might soon.

Prodded by several incidents, including last year's fatal shooting of woodcarver John Williams and a cop threatening to stomp "the fucking Mexican piss" out of a Latino suspect, the DOJ began to investigate the SPD in March.

Opponents of a residency requirement say officers should have the freedom to live where they want, and that instituting such a requirement means departments might have trouble recruiting the most promising job candidates.

"There would be a huge problem with trying to implement it," says Sgt. Rich O'Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers' Guild, which represents 1,250 members of the department. "What do you do with those outside? And how do you justly compensate them if they had to sell their home and move in?" There's zero chance of such a requirement being implemented "in our lifetime," O'Neill adds. "This hasn't come up in a long time, and isn't really on anybody's radar right now."

Asked about McGinn's views on such a requirement, spokesman Aaron Pickus referenced the mayor's February speech:

It's hard to have a good local police force if the police aren't local. State law prevents us from requiring officers to live in this city. As we hire new officers, that gives us an opportunity to recruit officers from the community and who understand our community and its values. But we have over 300 officers who are eligible for retirement."

As McGinn noted, state law currently prohibits residency requirements for officers, so Olympia would have to act before the city could implement one. And O'Neill concedes residency requirements have "long ago been ruled unconstitutional." But, according to a report from the Fraternal Order of Police:

"Generally, residency requirements have been upheld and deemed to be constitutional by the federal courts, so long as the employing jurisdiction has demonstrated some 'rational' basis for the provision. The court found that "rational" interests included such things as having employees available for emergency calls, employees having a stake in the community, enhancing the tax base, improving community attitudes and cooperation, increasing loyalty to the community, and reducing absenteeism."

And then there's the issue of affordable housing.

According to an SPD pay schedule, a new officer earns about $64,000 per year. That's above the national average--the mean salary for an officer nationwide, as of 2009, was $55,120. The average salary for an SPD patrol officer with 12 years of experience is $90,672, according to the city's personnel department.

Can SPD officers afford a median-priced home?

Sarah Rick Lewontin, executive director of the nonprofit Housing Resources Group, helped us crunch some numbers.

The median home price in Seattle last month was $340,000, down from $500,000 four years ago. The average listing price was $530,000.

So let's say Officer X puts 10 percent down on a $340,000 house and qualifies for a four percent APR fixed-interest rate on a 30-year mortgage. He'll borrow $306,000 and pay $1,460 per month. To afford this payment, he should earn $58,400 per year, below the starting salary for an SPD patrol officer.

Affordability is typically defined as spending no more than 30 percent of income to cover housing costs. If you include principle, interest, property taxes, insurance, and utilities, a median-priced home in Seattle costs $1,960 a month. One would have to earn $78,400 to afford a $340,000 home at that point, still in the range of many officers, but too high for some.

The solution could be to follow the lead of other municipalities and offer financial incentives to officers who live inside city limits--including, for example, a down-payment assistance program.

"From a common-sense point of view, I do think when you are a resident of an area, there could be some feeling of being connected to that city or to that area, as opposed to many of the SPD officers who don't live in city limits," Gaines said.

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