Officers Who Are About Police Work

February 27, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace. -- This must happen a lot.

A young man from Harford County got up early the other morning, put on his jacket and tie, and went to Baltimore to take the test given to applicants for the city police. Sorry, son, he was told. You can't sit for the test. You can't apply to be a city policeman. You're ineligible because you don't live in the city.

The young man is 20. If he were a year older, he was told, he would be allowed to take the test and apply -- as long as he promised to move into the city within a year if he were hired. But as he's under 21 and not a resident, the city police force had no use for him. It didn't care how good a prospect he might be. It just sent him away.

Who's the real loser here? The young man from Harford County lost a job opportunity, but he'll find another one. If he's truly interested in law enforcement -- his mother hopes he isn't -- he'll find a police job, too. He'll be fine. But every time this sort of thing happens in Baltimore, hopes for a real turnaround at the city police department grow just a little dimmer. The department and the city it serves are the losers.

Residency requirements of this sort have become increasingly common at urban police departments in recent years. They're invariably perpetrated by politicians, and they symbolize the prevailing political attitude that has made law enforcement in cities like Baltimore such a losing proposition.

There's much to be said for police officers living in the community where they work -- especially if they've freely chosen to live there. But support for residency requirements isn't usually about improving police performance. In Baltimore, such support is about patronage, and about exerting political power for ends that have nothing to do with public service.

No government seriously interested in providing its citizens with the best possible police force at the best possible price can logically support residency requirements. They increase costs without improving departmental performance or morale.

By limiting the pool of available applicants, they make it harder and more expensive to hire new officers. In addition, by restricting their right to decide where to live, residency requirements also impose indirect financial burdens on many of those who do get hired.

This drives up the cost of keeping them on the force as they gain experience. If an officer concludes it costs him $5,000 a year more to house and educate his family in Baltimore than it would in Anne Arundel County, say, he's going to expect to be compensated for it.

Residency requirements are embraced not only by those involved in the patronage game but by the hopelessly second-rate. By reducing the competition that unfettered hiring practices would bring, these requirements make life more secure for those already on board, especially the mediocre performers. The fewer outstanding new hires, the brighter their hopes for regular promotions.

In most big cities, police politics have a lot to do with race, and Baltimore is no exception. In a predominantly black city, it's frequently argued, residency requirements mean more jobs for blacks. But that's unpersuasive -- and morally suspect. If Baltimore wants to increase its proportion of black officers from the present 30 percent, that's a reasonable policy goal. But why should a black applicant from Baltimore be preferred over a black applicant from Randallstown?

As David Simon's splendid four-part series in The Sun earlier this month made clear, the Baltimore police department is in big trouble -- so big that it's finally gotten Mayor Schmoke's attention. It's undermanned, underpaid and a far cry from the RTC professional operation it used to be. Mr. Schmoke's recent appointment of a well-regarded white policeman from California to take over its direction was brave, but also poignant; there was something almost desperate about it.

Be that as it may, the new commissioner, Thomas Frazier, appears to be off to a good start. If the professionals in the department, black and white, are as relieved by the change of direction as Mr. Simon suggests, it's encouraging.

In a democracy, there must of course be ultimate civilian control of police activity. But politicians, whether they wear police uniforms or suits, don't make good leaders at the operational level. As an unnamed shift commander so eloquently remarked to David Simon, ''they pick people who aren't about police work.''

Baltimore needs officers who are about police work. It needs officers who feel that the city supports them in their difficult career. One way to find more such people, and keep them on the force as the years go by, would be to recognize that it's none of the city's business where they choose to make their homes.

There's no more positive step that Mayor Schmoke and Commissioner Frazier could take than to announce their support for the immediate repeal of all residency requirements for Baltimore police officers.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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