Debate reignited over Memphis police residency requirements

Published: Dec. 8, 2021 at 5:16 PM CST|Updated: Dec. 9, 2021 at 7:08 AM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The debate over where Memphis police officers should be allowed to live has been reignited.

For the second time in two years, an effort is underway to loosen residency requirements.

The issue was set to appear on the ballot last year, but the city council removed it, even overriding a veto by Mayor Jim Strickland. As violent crime rises, some say it’s time to let the voters decide on this issue.

Right now, there are 1,973 officers on the Memphis police force, according to data the Memphis Police Department presented to the city council this week.

That’s far short of the 2,500-goal city leaders set.

John Covington with the Memphis Police Association says over the last couple of years, the city has done a lot to recruit more officers, like offering a $15,000 sign-on bonus.

“Police work is really a calling. It’s not an easy job. You don’t go into it to become a millionaire,” said Covington.

He supports loosening police residency requirements to expand the pool of applicants.

“I think kind of the issue facing us now is, we need a bigger pool of applicants in this really competitive market,” said Covington.

Right now, Memphis police officers must live in Shelby County. The city council is considering a measure to put before voters that would allow officers to live within 50 miles of the city.

This week, it reignited a fierce debate.

“We’re concerned about where people lay their heads at night as if that has an indication of where their heart is and how motivated they are to do the job,” said Memphis City Councilman Worth Morgan, who sponsored the measure. “To prejudge someone like that, to have a perceived opinion that is not based on facts or experience is the very definition of prejudice, and it has no place in the City of Memphis recruiting process in any of our divisions.”

Then there are those who say they’re concerned about outsiders policing communities they have no stake in, and they say the focus should be on recruiting more from within the city.

“I’m still not seeing what the big urge is to not recruit people to live in a city that we say we all love and support,” said Memphis City Councilwoman Michalyn Easter-Thomas, who led the effort last year to remove the residency referendum from the ballot. “I don’t understand why it’s so allowable for everyone to be able to throw up their hands and accept whatever, wherever and not even ask them the simple request to live amongst us.”

The council will take a series of votes over the next several weeks that could put the issue back on the ballot for voters in August or November.

The challenge is not just recruiting officers but retaining them.

The Memphis Police Department says 85 officers have resigned this year. More than two-thirds went to work at other agencies or switched careers.

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