I reported Saturday that the Little Rock City Board would discuss tonight an ordinance drawn up at City Director Erma Hendrix’s request to require future Little Rock police hires to live in the city.
The Democrat-Gazette’s Chelsea Boozer reported more extensively on the idea this morning and included the figure that 177, or about 34 percent, of the department’s 527 sworn officers live in the city of Little Rock.
I followed up with a request for a racial breakdown on police department residency. I think it’s important. The city is 40 percent black. The sworn officer force is 30 percent black. But the residency breakdown is starker in racial terms.
Of 160 black officers, 99, or 62 percent, live in the city. Of 354 white officers, only 75, or 21 percent, live in the city.
Is it fair to take residency choices as a commentary of any sort about the city? Of course it is, though that commentary can include many factors, including housing, a desire for rural living, schools, relatives and lots more, including race and crime rate.
The city police, now led by a black chief, have been under fire for years for using excessive force against black suspects. Some court cases pend. Controversy has arisen recently about a decision to buy sufficient riot gear to put all of the more than 500 officers on the street at one time with shields, helmets and the like.
Boozer’s article noted the city once tried a residency requirement for all employees about 20 years ago, but dropped it after a year. City Manager Bruce Moore had already said he opposes a residency requirement for the police alone and says that shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement for a broader policy either.
I still don’t think Hendrix will make much headway with fellow directors on this proposal. But I also still think it’s a conversation worth having, if directors would discuss it candidly. Appearances seem clear. When you have a city in which most of your police officers, particularly the white ones, don’t want to live, you have a problem. And I’d extend that premise to all the other departments as well.
Related: the controversy over how police handled a noisy teen swimming party in a Dallas suburb produced this thoughtful commentary by a former police officer and college teacher on the “guardian” and “warrior” mentality among police officers. The guardian sometimes can defuse volatile situations with calm interaction. The warrior can sometimes ignite sparks and is more prone to use force when challenged. I’d submit the approach can reflect how officers look at the people around them — as fellow citizens or as threats.
UPDATE: I can’t cover the meeting this evening, but early Tweets from TV reporters indicate the discussion may miss the important points. Hendrix says city directors live in the city, why shouldn’t cops? And she says she doesn’t like seeing police cars outside the city limits. Director B.J. Wyrick opposes the ordinance, says it would limit the job pool. And THERE is the problem. You have city directors who implicitly acknowledge that a lot of people don’t want to live in Little Rock. Why is that? What can be done about that? Is no one troubled that potential cops, particularly white ones, don’t want to live here? Is not a one of them concerned this might translate into how they relate to the people taxpayers pay them to serve?
Chief Kenton Buckner also said such an ordinance would hurt recruitment. Hendrix said having more cops living in neighborhoods would be good. Which, again, misses the point. It wouldn’t mean much, if, for example, they also clustered in gated communities. Residency isn’t the issue. What it symbolizes is another matter.
UPDATE II: Hendrix was joined by Directors Doris Wright and Ken Richardson in support of the ordinance. That puts all three black directors on board. Director Kathy Webb indicated some sympathy. Opposition came from several others, though some talked in terms of incentive plans for employees to live in the city. That’s certainly worth talking about, though for a city on the financial ropes, likely a stretch.
The chief and others on the city Board blithely repeated that “schools” are a disincentive to living here. Isn’t it about time that the City Board stop mindlessly repeating this broad slur on a school system (and the city of Little Rock covers TWO public school districts) that has many academic bright spots, as well as some lagging schools. You can find safe, excellent schools in Little Rock easily. Is “school” just a synonym for “majority black”? That’s certainly how suburban real estate marketers have used the term.