Arbiter allows Pittsburgh police to reside outside city limits

For the first time in more than a century, Pittsburgh police officers will not have to live in the city where they work, according to a draft arbitration award announced Thursday that thrilled the police union but spurred deep concerns elsewhere.

"I was surprised and disappointed in the ruling that came out," said city Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle, chairman of the public safety committee.

"It's a horrible idea," said Tim Stevens, chairman and chief executive officer of the Black Empowerment Project.

The draft award used language suggested by the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 1 that sets a radius for officers to live within 25 air miles of the City-County Building, Downtown.

That area includes parts of Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties, as well as all of Allegheny County.

An attorney for the police union said the residency decision pertains only to the force's 842 rank-and-file members, not the small command staff. Once the decision is made final, police officers will enjoy a benefit that no other city employee has. Teachers with Pittsburgh Public Schools are not required to be city residents, but the district's other employees are.

Last month, though, city council voted to confirm solicitor Lourdes Sanchez-Ridge after a lengthy battle over her residency. She bought a condominium in Shadyside last year but owns a home in Upper St. Clair where her husband and daughter live.

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Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto Thursday reiterated his long-held position that he favors residency but would be willing to negotiate away the requirement if he could get changes in other areas of policing, including recruitment, retention and discipline.

But the police union president, Sgt. Michael LaPorte, said changes would be through collective bargaining and only after the current contract expires in December.

Mr. Peduto said the city could also appeal through the courts.

While the police union hailed the decision as benefiting its members and the city, others expressed concerns that officers would not have as vested an interest in protecting their community, that the already predominantly white police force would grow even whiter, and that tax money would flow out of the city and into suburban coffers.

Mr. Stevens noted that in November, Pittsburgh voters overwhelmingly approved amending the city's home rule charter to mandate residency for all city employees.

"Hopefully the vote of the people will supersede the vote of an arbitrator," Mr. Stevens said.

"But if this ruling were to stand, you now have an open opportunity for people to come from all suburban areas within 25 miles to now apply," he said. "If we think we have a problem now of having a more integrated and diverse police force, guess what, it's going to get worse, which is hard to believe in terms of how bad it's been. All that's going to do is water down the pool even further. It's a devastating decision."

Mr. Stevens, Mr. Lavelle and Joe King, president of the city firefighters union, all spoke of the importance they placed on having city employees -- particularly police officers and firefighters -- living in and interacting with the communities they serve. Firefighters must live in Pittsburgh for a year before they are even eligible to apply for the job.

"We know the demographics. We know the topography. We know the makeup of our neighborhoods. You cannot replace that connection you have with the neighborhood people. You can't put a price on it," Mr. King said.

He added that all benefits to his members are paid for by city taxpayers -- "Not the 52 bucks people give us who work in this city and go home to Cranberry and Fox Chapel."

Mr. King was referring to the $52-a-year local services tax charged to commuters.

Sgt. LaPorte disputed the various criticisms leveled at the residency change. He said one of the driving forces behind the union's push was that his members were tired of lacking school choice, particularly those with special-needs children who feel programs offered by Pittsburgh Public Schools are lacking.

"This is a great initiative to encourage diversity," Sgt. LaPorte said.

"I think for the city this is a huge win for them. I think they're going to be able to attract from a bigger job pool, more qualified candidates," Sgt. LaPorte said. "People are going to be here because they want to be here. This won't be a stepping stone to somewhere else."

The award, approved by neutral arbitrator John Skonier, still requires his signature and that of Bryan Campbell, attorney for the police union. A third arbitrator, Joseph Quinn, who represents the city, can opt to sign but note his dissent.

Mr. Campbell said the language of the award makes it effective immediately. He anticipates getting the document signed today.

The arbitration decision was made possible by a change several years ago in state law that allowed residency for Pittsburgh police to be subject to collective bargaining, Mr. Campbell said. A clause in the police contract allowed the residency issue to be reopened if the law changed, he added.

Sgt. LaPorte said he did not think the ruling would lead to dramatic changes or affect officers with longtime roots in Pittsburgh.

"I don't think you're gonna see any type of mass exodus," he said.

Jonathan D. Silver: or 412-263-1962. Moriah Balingit contributed. First Published March 13, 2014 11:40 AM

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