We remember the moment: Former New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass was on the now-defunct talk radio station WGSO-830AM. In-studio was businessman John Casbon who headed the police foundation, a support group for the department; Compass was on the phone.
Casbon, who spent much of his private time working on police matters, had hinted that the chief might have an important announcement – and he was right. For years mayors, and hence their police chiefs, had insisted on the residency rule, which required that all local police should be residents of the city. Like a dutiful cop, Compass had defended the regulation, but now with crime spiraling, and Mayor Ray Nagin’s permission, the chief was ready to speak out. In guarded terms he told the radio audience that it was time to rethink the residency rule. His reason was so simple that one wonders why there was ever any argument at all. His pool was too small, the chief said, because job candidates were limited to those who lived in the city. He needed to be able to “cast a wider net.”
A few months later Hurricane Katrina would create a new direction in New Orleans history and much of what had been done before – especially at the mundane policy level – would be forgotten. Katrina necessitated changing the residency laws if for no other reason than because so many police officers were displaced.
Still, the fact that the law existed at all needs to be remembered in understanding some of the sorry news we’ve heard about police officers lately. In the past few months we have seen cops sent to prison for murder, rape, cover-up, theft and fraud.
Each one of those officers failed their sworn responsibility, but in a broader sense the system failed them. Had the department been able to cast that wider net and search uninhibited for the best and brightest, some of those who are now in jail wouldn’t have likely qualified for the force in the first place. They might have settled into occupations removed from the hair-trigger sensitivities of being an urban cop. Had they not been where they were not qualified to be, they may have lived happy, productive lives.
There are some lessons to be learned form this. One is that cities shouldn’t have to pass laws requiring people to live in them and the other is that there should never be restrictions to searching for the best.
We support what the residency law was trying to do, and that was to have police officers living in urban neighborhoods where their very presence could be a crime-deterent. A good cop with his family could be productive and welcomed residents of any block. We hope that all public employees give the city a chance.
That, however, is a message to be vocalized and not legislated. Wasted lives now spent in jail provide evidence of what bad law can do.