Most everyone would love to have a police officer living on their block, St. Paul City Council Member Chris Tolbert said. Heck, he’d take one on his Highland Park street.
“Anytime you increase interaction between people, it typically improves relations,” he said.
That’s why Tolbert and Council Member Dai Thao want to create pilot programs encouraging more St. Paul officers to live in the city they’re sworn to protect.
Tolbert and Thao are sponsoring a resolution that will go Wednesday before the City Council, asking the Police Department and Financial Services to develop programs this year that can be launched in 2016.
The resolution also calls for creating a program to determine how body-worn cameras might be effectively used by police without jeopardizing the privacy rights of citizens.
Their aim, they said, is to find new ways to build ties between residents and police.
“It’s important that we have the trust of the citizens, and this can be another opportunity or tool we can use to create transparency and understanding,” Thao said.
Tolbert and Thao aren’t wedded to specific residency incentives.
Tolbert said some cities have offered tax abatements to live in certain areas. Thao said a pay incentive is worth considering, or perhaps a program to offer rehabbed properties at an attractive price to officers.
“We want the administration and the chief” — Thomas Smith, who lives in St. Paul — “to start fleshing this out and see if this is feasible, financially and legally,” Tolbert said.
A number of cities are using or considering body cameras, which can improve accountability and help settle cases where police brutality is charged. Officials warn that they’re not an investigative panacea, and that uniform standards need to be set for how recorded data is used, who has access to it and how long it should be stored.
“You’ll end up with this stuff all over the Internet, and some of it is mighty horrific,” said Council Member Dan Bostrom, a former police sergeant.
Nor are residency incentives necessarily a new approach. But the residency movement suffered collateral damage when the Legislature barred cities and counties in 1999 from requiring their employees to live there, and incentives have rarely been resurrected since.
Before 1979, St. Paul required its employees to live in the city. Then the city lifted that requirement, mandating only that employees live in Minnesota, according to Human Resources Director Angie Nalezny. The Legislature outlawed residency requirements for all cities and counties in 1981, only to grant St. Paul that power in 1994 if it chose to use it.
The council members think that having more police parking their squad cars at St. Paul addresses, walking their dogs and generally rubbing elbows with neighbors will elevate comfort levels, not to mention bring peace of mind locally.
Nevertheless, many police choose to live outside the jurisdiction they patrol — perhaps to avoid the potential of easy retaliation, or because they prefer real estate not offered there, or because it’s easier to relax where they don’t work.
According to city figures, just 22 percent of the people employed by the St. Paul police — including sworn officers, dispatchers and civilians — live in St. Paul.
In 1997, when the City Council was debating whether to scrap a residency incentive offering job applicants an edge on their test scores if they agreed to live in St. Paul, 29 percent of police lived in the city.
Even then, the incentive failed to boost the number of city employees who lived in St. Paul.
Kandace Montgomery, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, said that the organization likes the idea of using body cameras and establishing a residency incentive for police. It wants the Legislature to go a step further and allow cities to adopt residency requirements. But the group’s first goal remains an independent civilian body that has the authority to hold police accountable, she said.
Dave Titus, president of the St. Paul Police Federation, said that before city officials approve the use of body cameras, they should know what they will cost and be prepared to fully fund them — including the additional people needed to handle the equipment, use it and store the data.
“It’s a two-dimensional tool and only one aspect of what an officer is seeing, hearing, feeling,” he said. “Can it be helpful? Absolutely. But it won’t cure everything in terms of officer safety and investigations.”
As for residency incentives, Titus said that the police union is willing to consider them.
“I live in the city, but I do that by choice,” he said. “I do not believe that anyone should be forced to live in the city.”
Kevin Duchschere • 651-925-5035