For years there has been an ongoing debate in Tennessee over the requirement for first responders to live in the same county that they work in. While the debate has mostly taken place in Memphis, more recently Republican lawmakers are looking to take the decision away from the city by enacting a state-wide ban on residency requirements.
Residency requirements are generally enforced to help promote a community policing approach to law enforcement. The idea is that by living in the community they patrol, officers are in a better position to connect with residents and gather information where necessary. Rather than simply dealing with issues as they come up, the officers know the people they’re dealing with and so have a better understanding of the full picture. From the perspective of the community members, they are able to build a relationship with the officer, getting to know them as a neighbor rather than seeing them as a faceless authority figure.
But this strategy also comes with its downsides. Some officers dislike residency requirements as they feel that they limit their career and living opportunities. They may wish to move somewhere else for any number of reasons: to be closer to family members, for their children’s schooling, or to live in a more affordable area than the one they work in. Others argue that a level of anonymity is better for everyone: officers may not want everyone to know exactly where they live, and not knowing the people they’re dealing with on a personal basis can help them to remain impartial.
In short, while there are certainly some convincing arguments in favor of residency requirements, there are a number of serious disadvantages that emerge when it is put into practice.
States vary greatly on how they’ve handled residency requirements for first responders and other tax-funded employees, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Connecticut has banned municipalities from requiring residency for employees subject to collective bargaining. Illinois only allows residency requirements in cities with populations of more than 100,000. Last year, Missouri enacted a law banning the Kansas City Police Department from imposing such restrictions.
The debate over residency requirements in Tennessee has become very political, with Democratic-leaning city leaders seeing it as a way of Republican state lawmakers removing their voice. With comfortable supermajorities in both chambers, Tennessee Republicans are in a strong position to put through the bill. In fact, it already cleared the Senate last year, meaning it just needs to advance out of the House during this upcoming legislative session before it can hit Gov. Bill Lee’s desk. While the Republican governor hasn’t publicly weighed in on the legislation, he has never vetoed a bill during his time in office.
A Question Of Efficacy
As community policing becomes increasingly prevalent here in the US, the question is whether or not residency requirements are an effective part of the approach.
Sarah Greenman, an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota, said, “One of the trickiest things to residency requirements is determining what is the goal of them. Is it to reduce crime? There are other effective ways to do that better. Residency requirements can sometimes sound good, but I’m not sure it’s necessary ”
There have not been many studies on the practical effects of residency requirements, and even those who support the practice have struggled to come up with statistical or empirical data to show that it actually works. It seems that Tennessee’s shift may be a step forward in giving police in that state’s police more freedom in terms of their work/life balance, and that can only be a good thing.