The ongoing debate about a city residency requirement for Little Rock police officers — rejected for a second time last week by the City Board of Directors — has overlooked the expensive subsidy the city provides to dozens of officers who live outside the city: Police cars for commuting.
In a series of Freedom of Information Act requests, I’ve pinned down the number of police (and other city employees) who are provided a city vehicle to commute to work, in theory because of the value of their arriving in city vehicles should emergencies arise. It’s a benefit that goes overwhelmingly to people who don’t live in the city of Little Rock.
On the 528-person Little Rock police force, 188 are allowed the use of police vehicles to commute to work. That benefit is untaxed. The city pays for fuel, oil and maintenance of the cars. The home use is covered by the Municipal League insurance that covers the city fleet.
A free car for commuting is a significant benefit. This year, the federal government puts the allowable reimbursement rate for personal car use at 54 cents a mile.
In Little Rock, I don’t have a full accounting of residency because the city hasn’t yet released the hometowns of 29 undercover officers who are provided vehicles. It has also withheld their names, as law allows from the lists they provided me of city employees with take-home cars. But of the other 160 with take-home cars, only 46, or less than 30 percent, live in the city of Little Rock. The other 114 commute to homes as far as 55 miles away. About 34 percent of the current force of 528 officers live in the city.
UPDATE: The city has updated the list to reflect that all but two of the undercover officers apparnetly don’t live in the city. Final tally is 48 Little Rock officers among the 189 who have take-home cars.
The valuable commuting benefit, it seems offsets in some measure the complaint by officers who defend living elsewhere that Little Rock is too expensive. They also say it has too much crime (!) and poor schools.
There are, of course, safe, affordable neighborhoods in Little Rock with good schools. City Director Erma Hendrix, in pushing for a residency requirement, has said the issue is more simple — race. Indeed, white officers overwhelmingly reject Little Rock as a place to live, while the majority of black officers live in the city. She and the two other black directors were the only votes for a residency requirement.
At last count, the 528-person force had 165 black officers. In a 2015 breakdown of those numbers, only 75 of 354 white police officers lived in the city, while a majority, 99 of 160, of black officers lived in the city. There’s no reason to think take-home car privileges would depart much from those percentages if a racial breakdown was available.
Why do we provide such a benefit to live outside the city? I’ve put that question to Moore but don’t have a response. You might ask the same question of city officials who want to rip up the heart of the city with a 10-lane freeway project because of their belief in the importance of reducing commuting time for suburban dwellers.
Many cities have found value in allowing officers to take cruisers home when they live in the city. They are visible symbols of police presence. They don’t contribute much to public safety of the city who pays the officers’ salaries when parked in Conway, Malvern or Cabot, however.
Residency requirements haven’t worked well in many cities that have tried them. We have recruiting difficulties as it is. But I have a hard time understanding why we provide financial encouragement to live outside the city.
UPDATE: City Director Ken Richardson says he’s long advocated take-home cars for all city resident cops, both as an incentive to live here and a public safety tool. He said he was told by City Manager Bruce Moore than could cost $5 million to $7.5 million. Only about 175 officers live in the city now and, of those, only 46 have cars.
I’d think city officials mindful of the budget would want to give a second thought to spending hundreds of thousands a year to provide free commuting. I have no doubt it has value in select cases. But just how often do these 188 officers make an emergency response? How many simply commute. How much time would be lost if the commute was in a personal car. The emergency issue looks less compelling for people who live an hour away in the first place.
City Manager Bruce Moore said the city has made no effort to compute the cost of providing free cars for commuting. I think it’s in the neighborhood of $1 million a year. Here are the cities in which cops have take-home cars, not counting the 29 undercover. I’ve listed the city; the roundtrip commute based on a Google search of the distance from city center to city center, and the number of cops in that city. Obviously the distance could be more or less depending on place of residence.
Alexander (32) 11
Austin (58) 1
Bauxite (49) 1
Benton (52) 21
Bigelow (78) 1
Bryant (41) 11
Cabot (53) 9
Conway (66) 4
Greenbrier (86) 2
Hensley (39) 2
Hot Springs (110) 2
Jacksonville (34) 2
Lonoke (54) 3
Mabelvale (25) 5
Malvern (94) 1
Maumelle (37) 16
Mayflower (49) 1
North Little Rock (10) 8
Searcy (104) 1
Sherwood (23) 10
Vilonia (77) 1
Ward (64) 1
Multiply each commute distance by the number of officers and then multiply that by five days a week and you’re looking at more than 30,000 miles a week of commuting. Multiply that times 48 (giving four weeks off for sick days, vacation, leave and other non-use) and the mileage totals almost 1.5 million. At 54 cents a mile, the cost is something in the range of $780,000 a year at federal reimbursement rates, or an average of about $6,800 per out-of-town resident. If the same percentage of undercover officers lives out of town, about 70 percent, adding another 20 cops at the same average cost would add another $130,000 or so. That puts us over $900,000 without considering what the mileage does to replacement costs and other factors.
The police provided a list of 159 officers who receive take-home cars (though an addition of hometowns adds up to 160, a discrepancy I haven’t been able to clear up just yet.)
Remember, that list doesn’t include the 29 undercover officers, for a total take-home fleet of 188. It’s likely that well more than 114 go outside the city.
How are take-home privileges decided? There’s a long policy, but the key paragraph is this:
Certain Department personnel in specialized assignments which by the nature of the assignment mandate their return to duty during off-duty hours for investigation or other critical police responses may be assigned a take-home Department vehicle. The Chief of Police will designate all take-home vehicle assignments in writing as needed.
I also asked about take-home cars in other city departments. In all there are 33, with 18 of them in the Fire Department. Of those 33, 19 go outside the city, scattered in Alexander, Benton, Bryant, Conway, Hensley, Mabelvale, Maumelle, North Little Rock, Scott and Sherwood. If history is a guide, the out-of-towners are heavily concentrated in the Fire Department, which joined the Fraternal Order of Police in opposing a residency requirement for cops.
UPDATE: Only 8 of 18 Fire Department take-home cars are driven by Little Rock residents. Only 3 of 10 public works employees with city cars live in Little Rock.