Hardy Brown Sr. | Contributor
Hardy Brown Sr. photo by Benoit Malphettes
Criticism of local police is often centered on the issue of whether officers really understand the communities they are sworn to protect and serve, as well as how much they truly comprehend the culture of the people who live in those communities.
This criticism has gained traction because few officers live where they work. For officers to reside in the community they serve—though once very common across America—has changed over the years and is now more an exception than the rule.
So much so that many in minority communities argue this has led to much of the distrust between residents and police. While several on the other side argue officers are often concerned about living in a community among those whom they’ve arrested.
A 2016 New York Times report noted how some officers expressed concern that during periods of increased tension between local police and citizens, social media postings and traditional media reports can fuel ire against them and [if they lived where they work] could place their families at risk.
Still others are certain in the ongoing quest to bridge the gap between police officers and communities—the issue of geography, related to where officers live versus where they work, is as good a place as any to start a conversation.
There is another issue that extends even beyond local police understanding the people and culture of communities they serve—it is the economic impact officers who do not live where they work have on the municipalities that employ them. Officers’ salaries are paid by members of the community and when police do not live where they work, those salary dollars leave the area and, in the process, can negatively impact a lower income community’s economic viability.
In the City of San Bernardino for example in 2017 according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 30.6 percent of the city’s residents lived in poverty; yet every year police officers, who work here but do not live here, take more than $17.6 million in salaries out of the local economy. If they lived in the city many of those dollars would be recycled here because people spend their money where they live, shop and play. Today, only 16 officers or 6.8 percent of the city’s police, from a force that totals 235 officers, live in the City of San Bernardino.
A new officer in this city makes $80,628 a year. At minimum, the 219 officers living outside the city collectively take at least $17,657,532 out of the community every year.
This scenario is more egregious when you consider in 2019 San Bernardino rated among the poorest cities in America and yet the salaries of its police officers’ rate among the highest when compared to nearby communities. It exceeds the salary of the nearby city with the next highest salary by almost $6,000 per year. Consider the following:
Concerns over police salaries in San Bernardino are anchored in two realities. At a council meeting in late May there was some discussion related to city revenue and public safety. Acting Police Chief Eric McBride expressed his belief that attracting families with higher income levels to the community and making the city safer would attract more businesses to the area.
Arguably, on its face this perspective seems reasonable. However, McBride’s comments could be criticized as disingenuous when you consider the high salaries the city provides its police in contrast to the small number of them that live in the community. What does this say to those thinking about moving to the community? “Come, live in San Bernardino, a city protected by some of the highest paid police officers in Southern California…Our police officers keep this city safe—though, just not safe enough for them to live here with us and raise their families…”
In addition, when we consider what we pay local police in light of the city’s overall economic viability and the high percentage of the city’s population living in poverty, we must still question the wisdom of city leadership that signed off on an agreement in November 2015 between the Police Management Association, the Police Officers Association that guaranteed officers a 3.5 percent raise through the year 2020 regardless of whether the city can afford to pay for it.
These high salaries are a concern as are issues over residency requirements for police officers that have been fought across the country for decades. Police unions most often advocate on behalf of officers’ rights to live where they choose. However, an argument can also be made on the other side.
In Kennedy v. City of Newark in 1959, Chief Justice Weintraub of New Jersey declared, “The question is not whether a man is free to live where he will. Rather the question is whether he may live where he wishes and at the same time insist upon employment by government.” No such fundamental right is expressed or implied in the U.S. Constitution.
Arguments over the issue of residency requirements persisted into the 1970s when the premise undergirding support for residency was termed the “stake in the community doctrine.”
In 1973 a case argued before the California Supreme Court, Ector v. City of Torrance, elicited judicial comments that at first appeared to signal a favorable ruling for the “stake in the community doctrine.” The court noted how it supported, “[T]he promotion of ethnic balance in the community [and] enhancement of the quality of employee performance by greater personal knowledge of the city’s conditions and by a feeling of greater personal stake in the city’s progress.” Despite these sentiments however, the court ruled against the residency requirement.
According to the League of California Cities under general law defined in the California constitution, charter cities like San Bernardino, “Cannot require employees be residents of the city,” however, the general law further states, “but, [it] can require them to reside within a reasonable and specific distance of their place of employment. This is noted in Article XI of the California Constitution, Section 10(b).
In the City of San Bernardino the disproportionately high salaries—compared to what new police earn in nearby cities and in light of the city’s high poverty; and the small percentage of police that live and recycle their dollars in the community are two in a trilogy of stark and disparate realities this city must address in regard to its police force. The third, equally compelling disparity involves the makeup of the force itself when weighed against the demographics of the community. The numbers speak for themselves:
The trilogy of disparity has civic, economic and societal impacts for the community. Officers’ high pay for a poverty ridden community is out of range with other nearby cities, the great majority of the force do not live in the city nor does the make-up of the force even come close to reflecting the demographic make-up of the community it serves. Again, this must change.
Police unions make significant contributions to local politicians who, once elected, reflect the interest of their financial backers. While citizens in poor communities like the City of San Bernardino have very little money to buy political influence—nor should they have to for their voices to be heard.
What we have instead is numbers—numbers of people who are watching who is getting big dollars from police unions; numbers of people spreading the word about such contributions; people who are weighing decisions by the council against the best interest of the city’s citizens; and people willing to advocate and go to the polls and vote for what they want for this community by electing candidates who will represent those interests.