It was a tiny detail in another devastating story of police use of force. Seeking comment from the Columbus police officer involved in the most recent killing of a civilian, the Columbus Dispatch described the “No Trespassing” sign tacked to the front door of the officer’s house in Union County.
There is a crisis in American policing today, a disconnection between those who police and the people they are meant to serve. Much of this crisis can be understood from the commonplace practice of employing people to police a diverse city who would choose to live in a county where whites outnumber African Americans 33 to 1.
A Census report revealed that in nearly every big city in America — including Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Toledo — African American police officers are more likely to live in the city they serve than their white peers. The nation recoiled at the police strangulation of George Floyd in Minneapolis — a city where 19 in every 20 white officers live out of town.
Cities in Ohio once had the ability to combat this problem. In fact, twenty years ago more than 100 Ohio cities had employee residency requirements that made living within city limits a condition of continued employment. In 2006, however, the Republican legislature and Gov. Bob Taft set out to end residency requirements. They spoke of personal freedom imperiled by residency requirements as if cities were storming into people’s homes and forcing them to move.
But residency requirements no more forced someone to move than education requirements force someone to attend college. It was, rather, a job qualification like any other — something city leaders saw as making their employees better at their work.
The city of Lima unsuccessfully challenged the residency ban as an affront to home rule. The Republican-dominated state supreme court upheld the law. But the city’s argument still rings true today. Lima outlined the advantages of city employees living in town, including their knowledge of the city and their commitment to it. More to the point, Lima asserted that its residency requirement “promotes the employment of individuals with a greater empathy for the real and long term concerns and problems of the people of Lima.”
Empathy. The ability to understand the feelings of another. The quality so obviously lacking when a Columbus police officer investigating a noise complaint shot Andre Hill within ten seconds of seeing him.
This summer the Dispatch reported on a zoning meeting in Licking County in which several local residents vociferously opposed plans to build a group home for young people with disabilities. One opponent said he was a Columbus firefighter with a Columbus police officer fiancée. He told the zoning board, “We’ve dealt with this stuff a lot. It’s not something that we want to be around.” He said they “want to leave everything in the city” when they come home.
As if Columbus was a foreign land, a place to be reviled, filled with people one must escape from. Escape from the people they people are supposed to serve, from the people who pay their salaries. Empathy, or more aptly its total absence, on display in a residency choice at odds with the very nature of public service.
A residency requirement might actually make some public servants more empathetic — but just as importantly, it would weed out people who have no business serving the city, indeed have no capability to truly serve the city, because they view its residents as unworthy of them.
A 2015 U.S. Department of Justice taskforce on 21st-century policing recommended that police departments institute “residency incentive programs.” It’s past time for Ohio legislators to embrace the future of policing by reviving our policies of the past. Admit the folly of residency requirement bans and let cities build police forces from people who actually want to be there.