Police Residency Requirements: Relics of the Political Spoils System

Written by Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.

One of the more obscure requirements in the police recruitment and employment process is the residency requirement. People interested in becoming a police officer are often unaware that some agencies still have residency requirements.  While large local police departments recruit officers from around the country, other smaller agencies often have strict residency requirements limiting recruitment to the local jurisdiction or state. Residency requirements can effect both the recruitment of applicants as well as those who are selected to serve in police agencies. When a department limits its recruitment area, it effectively limits the potential pool of applicants and the potential diversity of those applicants. Residency requirements for most jurisdictions are a reflection of available personnel. A department that has a large number of qualified applicants can enforce residency requirements more easily; conversely, if the number of qualified applicants is low, the department has to expand its recruitment area. After officers are selected for employment, some agencies require officers to reside in the community in which they work.

Politicians, especially those in small communities, frequently pressure police executives to limit their search for new officers to the local population because doing so is more likely to provide them with political supporters at election time. Likewise, forcing officers to reside in the communities where they work also bolsters political clout. Residency requirements are an outgrowth of the political spoils system that awards jobs to loyal voters; people who live outside the political jurisdiction are frequently considered to be less than loyal supporters. In this way, political officials ensure that the police are both friendly and beholden to them. In fact, history shows that police officers often had to buy jobs by providing patronage to local political leaders and even to pay for promotions.

Today, proponents of residency requirements advocate them because they are said to contribute to a local tax base while decreasing unemployment in the city. Some advocate residency requirements as a method of having more continual police present in a community and perhaps reducing crime. Residency requirements, in some cases, can contribute to achieving balanced racial/ethnic representation or it can result in exclusion. If a police department recruits strictly within the confines of its community, the demographic composition of the force is more likely to reflect that of the community. If the community, however, is not representative of the larger population, it is unlikely that the agency will select a sufficient number of people to reflect this diversity.

Opponents of residency requirements argue that they restrict the applicant pool, thus reducing the overall quality of police selection. Most police officers dislike residency requirements. Residency requirements are perceived to affect the quality of life for police officers and their families, especially when they are required to reside in “undesirable neighborhoods.” Given the fact that the police institution is disproportionately made up of white males, one wonders if a “desirable neighborhood” is merely code language for racism. Alternatively, requiring officers to live in the communities that they serve can contribute to a more responsive police force.  If officers live in the communities they police, they may be less likely to be seen as an occupation force.

Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.
Associate Dean
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University

Published on June 11, 2013