Best Shot

St. Louis police may be close to getting the right to live where they want

Philip Klevorn doesn't have to search for a reason to love the rule that requires St. Louis police officers to live within the city limits. All he has to do is look out his front door on the 5600 block of Delor Street.

"On my street alone, we have seven cops," says Klevorn, president of the Southampton Neighborhood Association. "You see them coming home from work in the evening in their uniforms, or you see them leaving in the morning. Sometimes they bring their cars by, or they come home for lunch. People tend to know who the cops are."

Others, however, don't share Klevorn's enthusiasm. Two bills pending in the Missouri General Assembly would repeal the 30-year-old residency rule, which was imposed in the 1970s by the St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners to counter population loss and erosion of the city's tax base. Klevorn and other proponents of the rule (including the Board of Police Commissioners and Mayor Francis Slay) argue that it helps connect police to the community they serve, whereas police officers complain that it limits their housing options and tethers them to inferior public schools.

Bills to end the residency requirement have been introduced for years, but they've never made it to the governor's desk. Last year's bill died on the final day of the legislative session, thanks to political horse-trading. This year promises to be different: Republicans, who have no real power base in the city, control the state Legislature.

The bill introduced in the House of Representatives, sponsored by Representative Jack Jackson (R-Wildwood), has 83 co-sponsors. (A bill needs only 82 votes to pass the House.) The Senate version is sponsored by Senator Anita Yeckel (R-Crestwood). Both bills would forbid the city from dictating where police officers live, though Illinois would remain off-limits.

Jackson says he didn't hesitate to sponsor the bill when he was approached by city police. "If we're going to ask our men and women in uniform to serve us and protect us, we should stand up for them as well and respond to some of their requests," says Jackson, a Marine fighter pilot during the Vietnam War.

The St. Louis legislative delegation opposes the bills. "We've got some valid points to raise about who's sponsoring the bill and why," says Representative Tom Villa (D-St. Louis). "I kind of resent the fact that a state representative from Wildwood is directing the city of St. Louis' and the St. Louis Police Board's policy. I like Jack Jackson, the sponsor of the bill, but he's meddling in a realm that he doesn't understand and he doesn't know much about."

Villa believes backers of the bills are simply trolling for police-union endorsements. "I don't think they understand all the issues, particularly the financial ramifications for the city of St. Louis. We're going to have some disenchanted firemen and some disenchanted city workers who are going to want the same luxury extended to them," Villa adds.

Residency requirements apply to all St. Louis municipal employees -- other than employees of offices that perform county functions, such as the recorder of deeds and treasurer.

Jackson says he's only interested in getting the residency exemption for police.

"If this passes, I'm just happy for the policemen," Jackson says. "I want to make it perfectly clear: I'm not taking on Mayor Slay. I have the utmost respect for him. He's running a very large city. This is just an issue of someone in a uniform being forced to do something I don't feel they should do, that they don't have to."

Back in 1995, Alderman Jim Shrewsbury (D-16th Ward) sponsored a nonbinding referendum on the residency rule. Turnout was light -- only one in four registered voters cast ballots -- but support for the residency requirement was overwhelming, garnering 68 percent of the vote. Shrewsbury, now president of the Board of Aldermen, continues to favor the rule.

Though city police would pay the city's 1 percent earnings tax no matter where they lived, other taxes and benefits would be lost, Shrewsbury argues.

The cost goes beyond dollars and cents, he adds. "What will happen [if] we end up with a police force that lives in St. Louis County or Jefferson County or St. Charles?" Shrewsbury asks. "It's a problem: What you'll end up with is more hostility toward the police because they're not part of the community."

Jim Gilsinan, a St. Louis University criminologist and dean of the College of Public Service, says he knows of no study backing up the claim that crime rates decline when police move into a neighborhood.

"The impact is more psychological," Gilsinan says, "particularly for a city like St. Louis, where there is a loss of residents anyway. There's the psychological security of keeping residents, and then the safety issue at least symbolically becomes important. For city environments, mayors and city councils develop a mentality that 'Gee, if we can't keep our employees in the city, why would anyone want to move into the city?'"

Moreover, police tend to move into safe neighborhoods. Philip Klevorn, for instance, lives in the police department's 2nd District, home to 583 of the city's 1,537 officers, according to department records. One of nine police districts, the 2nd -- which is bordered by Kingshighway to the east, Oakland Avenue to the north, the city limits to the west and Gravois Avenue to the south -- has a crime rate lower than that of any other district in the city. The adjacent 1st District, around Carondelet Park, is home to 315 officers. The 6th District, which includes the northeast neighborhoods of Baden, Riverview and North Pointe, is home to many black police officers, but most neighborhoods in the city's 61 square miles don't have many blue-uniformed residents at all. Only sixteen officers live in the 5th District, and just twenty live in the 8th District. Both districts are in high-crime areas of North St. Louis. (Police department records show that 164 members of the force have the option of living in the suburbs because they were hired before May 29, 1973, when the police board enacted the residency rule.)

Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, says his Washington, D.C.-based police labor organization routinely opposes residency requirements. Pasco says most jurisdictions have some version of a residency requirement.

"We resist their imposition where they do not exist, and we try to overturn them where they do. It's ongoing. It's part of every contract negotiation," Pasco says. "A police officer has the right to live wherever he or she chooses." The odd dynamics of state control over city police, which date back to the Civil War, hamper Mayor Slay's efforts to kill the bills. Though the police department is funded out of the city's budget, the police themselves are not city employees; members of the Board of Police Commissioners, which imposed the rule, are appointed by the governor.

Gary Wiegert, president of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, declined to be interviewed for this story, but last week, on his radio talk show on WGNU (920 AM), he said city politicians are discussing a compromise. "Right now a compromise isn't necessary because we're winning," Wiegert said. "I think that's why they want to compromise -- because they want to keep the whole thing from being passed."

Such a compromise might include retaining the residency requirement until a police officer serves on the force for a certain length of time or limiting how far away an officer can live in an effort to shorten commuting times in case of emergency.

Governor Bob Holden can veto legislation, but Wiegert says the bill would be attached as an amendment to a larger, less controversial bill, in light of the fact that Holden only has line-item veto power over budget matters. The governor must also weigh a veto against the possibility of losing the support of the state Fraternal Order of Police, which has endorsed him in past elections.

Still, Villa -- a former speaker of the house and former aldermanic president -- isn't about to give up. "You can talk it to death or you can amend it," Villa says. So far, he adds, he hasn't seen any compromise worth making. "The compromise I was presented was really folly, because it said they could leave if we have a nonaccredited school district. If the district loses accreditation, you'd see a mass exodus. I just threw that one in my drawer."