Pittsburgh's mayoral primary is still more than a month away, but a winner already seems to be emerging: city police officers who'd rather live someplace else.
For years, Pittsburgh police have bridled under a requirement that they live within city limits. But the tide has turned in their favor: Of the major contenders for the Democratic Party nomination, none has shown much interest in maintaining the requirement. The only such candidate who professed strong support for the requirement, City Controller Michael Lamb, dropped out of the race April 1.
Until recently, even a mayor had little to say on the issue: Residency was required by state law. But Harrisburg voided that mandate last year. Under Act 195 — which passed despite objections from most of Pittsburgh's House members — if the city wants to keep officers from leaving, it must do so through contract negotiations.
"When state law required residency, we didn't have to give anything up for it," recalls Joe Mistick, a Duquesne University law professor and a former city official in Sophie Masloff's administration. By contrast, because "collective bargaining is driven by the priorities of the parties when they sit down," a mayor's stance now matters much more.
At the outset of the campaign, both Lamb and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl supported keeping the requirement. In an interview last week, Lamb touted the "public-safety benefit from having the police 24 hours a day" — contributing to neighborhood safety even when off-duty. Another justification was ensuring that taxpayer-supported salaries remain in the city.
Early on, the only active candidate willing to negotiate over the issue was City Councilor Bill Peduto. "When people look at the surface of the issue," he says, "they want to live in neighborhoods that have police. But we already have out-of-city residency. Officers are taking jobs elsewhere."
Still, he says, the requirement "isn't something to just give away." He'd seek to keep officers in the city for the first few years of employment, and offer police the chance to move away later. In return, Peduto says, he'd seek higher standards for police recruits, and a stricter policy on promotions. "No more jumping rank," Peduto says, noting several cases where lower-ranking officers have leapfrogged over their superiors, prompting charges of favoritism.
"Professionalism is much more important than where an officer sleeps at night," he adds.
Peduto may or may not win the election, but he seems to have already won this debate. With Ravenstahl and Lamb out of the race, the field now includes two more skeptics on residency: state Rep. Jake Wheatley (D-Hill District) and former state Auditor General Jack Wagner.
Wheatley says the benefits of having an officer living next door are distributed unequally, since few officers live in poor or black neighborhoods. "In some neighborhoods the policing is much better than others — and that's with a residency requirement," Wheatley says.
The Fraternal Order of Police has long sought to overturn the requirement, a fight that included a failed court challenge a decade ago. When the FOP endorsed Wagner last month, its president, Michael LaPorte, noted that Wagner was "not opposed to" lifting the residency requirement — a move LaPorte said would make it easier to attract recruits.
Wagner himself says the FOP asked "whether I would try to repeal [the new state law]. My response was, ‘No, I would not.'" And while Wagner calls it "premature" to talk about contract negotiations, he adds, "The legislation has passed. I accept that, and we'll work within it to the best of our ability." His focus, he says, would be on creating incentives to keep police in town voluntarily.
Perhaps ironically, given the longstanding controversy over the issue, evidence suggests lifting the requirement may not prompt a police exodus — at least in the short term.
Philadelphia eased its own residency requirements in 2012; officers there are allowed to move outside the city after five years on the force. Since then, about 100 of the force's 6,600 officers have done so, says Eugene Blagmond, their union's political coordinator.
"People worry about a mass exodus, and it just doesn't happen," says Blagmond. "Selling a home is cumbersome. ... Even if you want the freedom to do something, it doesn't mean you're going to act on that freedom."
But Zack Stalberg, who heads Philadelphia government-watchdog group The Committee of Seventy, says it's too soon to draw conclusions from Philly's experiences.
"It could take years for it to play out," Stalberg says. For one thing, "housing prices here are still lower than they were several years ago, and you're probably not going to sell your house if it's worth less."
But in any case, Stalberg says, residency requirements are "kind of a mixed blessing. It does help keep the middle class in the city. But because of the requirement, city employees are a very significant voting bloc, and politicians play to that."
Which means, he adds, that while police unions may "gain the freedom for their members to live anywhere, they may lose some political clout."