Burgess wants referendum on police officers living in Pittsburgh

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Should Pittsburgh police officers continue to be required to live in the city?

If Councilman Ricky Burgess gets his way, it's a question that will be put to city voters Nov. 5. Today, he plans to introduce legislation to put the issue on the ballot, giving voters an opportunity to weigh in on a debate that has stretched at least two decades, when police began challenging the requirement. If the referendum succeeds, the requirement, which is already a part of city code, would be written into the city's home rule charter.

Mr. Burgess, who is a proponent of officers living in the city, said he believes voters will side with him.

"The community I represent ... they are frightened and disturbed that the police officers that patrol their streets have no personal interest in the city that they protect," he said. "They won't live, play ... and worship in the city."

Sgt. Mike LaPorte, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 1, called the residency requirement outdated and said it hurts recruitment and retention. He said officers worry about the quality of the education in city schools, which he called "bloodbaths."

"If the real goal is to put the best police officers out there ... then what does it matter where they live?" Sgt. LaPorte said. "When they come to work ... they're going to be professional no matter where they live."

Regardless of what voters decide, whether their voices will be heard is another matter entirely. Up until recently, state law -- as well as city code -- dictated that Pittsburgh police had to live within the city, but the state law was amended last year to lift the requirement. The change opened the door for the FOP to challenge the residency rule.

After months of unsuccessful negotiations, the matter went to arbitration, meaning a trio of arbitrators could make a determination before the referendum even occurs, because the city is due to present its arguments to the panel Sept. 23. Because of state law, their decision could trump city code and even the city's home rule charter. If arbitrators' decision is appealed to the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, however, the referendum could play a role in arguments for one side or the other.

Mr. Burgess acknowledged that it could be left to a judge to decide. But he said he wanted to do everything possible to fight for the residency requirement.

He believes strongly that lifting the residency requirement could lead to more of a breakdown in police-community relations and likened an out-of-town police department to an "occupying force." His proposal comes in the midst of ongoing discontent in Homewood over the arrest of a teacher outside of a community meeting two weeks ago. The teacher, who said he yelled as an officer sped by, was arrested as meeting members spilled out of the meeting, where the topics included police-community rapport. The incident has become a flash point, as community members called for the arresting officer to be placed on leave at a protest and the Citizen Police Review Board opened in inquiry into the confrontation.

"I believe it will heighten the tensions," he said. "It will create a wider disconnect and make the job of patrolling the city even tougher."

But Sgt. LaPorte responded that the residency requirement will make little difference in community-police relations.

"Police don't show up for the good times," he said. "There's always going to be that tension."

And that tension is part of the reason police want to leave, Sgt. LaPorte said. He said the children of police officers get picked on in city schools. He also cited two recent cases in which officers' families were targeted. In one, an officers' family was intimidated at their home.

In another, a sergeant who broke up a fight between a woman's boyfriend and another man in Brookline became the target of threats and a burglary. The woman was later overheard threatening to run over his daughter to prevent him from testifying in the case. Devonna Johnson, 42, is awaiting trial on intimidation, retaliation and conspiracy charges.

Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, who chairs the public safety committee, said the solution should not be to lift the residency requirement, but to improve the city's schools and to provide more incentives for everyone -- not just police officers -- to live in the city. And she cautioned that allowing officers to live outside the city could diminish their political power since officers who move outside the city's borders will no longer be able to vote.

"What can we do to make people want to stay in the city -- not just police officers, but everybody?"

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Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. First Published July 8, 2013 3:15 PM


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