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The Domicile Debate


By recently expressing his intent to repeal the city's strict domicile requirement for police, Mayor-elect Ray Nagin has set himself apart philosophically from outgoing Mayor Marc Morial, former Mayor Sidney Barthelemy and other political leaders.

The city's tough domicile law -- which applies to all city employees -- requires police recruits to live in Orleans Parish and prohibits the promotion of cops who live outside the parish. The Morial Administration went so far as to use private investigators to help enforce its strict domicile law, which the City Council adopted in 1995.

Nagin says the domicile rule impedes efforts to recruit and retain cops, and he argues that it puts NOPD at a competitive disadvantage with suburban law enforcement agencies with more lenient residency requirements. The mayor-elect would prefer officers live in the city, but says that incentives are a more effective stimulant than penalties.

Morial immediately called Nagin's idea a bad one and urged him to reconsider. "I am surprised by, and opposed to, any effort to weaken or repeal the city's domicile law ..." Morial said in an April 12 statement. "Strong equitable enforcement of this provision has been one of the pillars of police reform, helping to dramatically improve police-community relations. Some forget that the key to hiring and retention is pay and that we conducted the most successful hiring initiative with the domicile law intact."

Morial is correct when he states that pay is the critical issue. But that doesn't mean the domicile law is a good one. Moreover, Morial's statement ignores the dozens of unfilled positions at NOPD, positions that could be filled with qualified applicants who might happen to live outside the city. We believe the mayor-elect is taking a pragmatic approach to a chronic police manpower shortage.

Moreover, there is reason to believe the 1995 domicile law is less than equitable. City personnel director J. Michael Doyle, a critic of the Morial Administration but a proponent of a more lenient "residency" requirement, says the stricter domicile rule means that an undetermined number of higher-skilled, higher-paying city jobs that cannot be filled by people willing to move into the city are being performed by contract workers who may reside outside of Orleans Parish. A recent example: two DNA experts who live outside the city have been contracted by the city to perform services for the police DNA lab.

"If you are a city employee, you must live in city," Doyle says. "But if you have a contract, it doesn't matter where you live. It's a double standard."

The city's residency/domicile law historically has inspired passionate debate. In 1973, Mayor Moon Landrieu and an all-white City Council crafted the initial version after a federal race bias suit by African-American cops against the city and NOPD. The residency law included a grandfather clause that exempted hundreds of mostly white city workers who had purchased homes in the suburbs. In 1995, Morial persuaded the council to tighten the law by requiring city workers to make the city their primary residence, or domicile, if they wanted to be considered for promotions -- an idea that was first proposed in 1990 by former Mayor Barthelemy.

The courts have upheld residency laws, and the Louisiana Supreme Court has refused to grant exemptions for police and firefighters. At the same time, federal courts have awarded damages to mostly white cops who alleged they were illegally discriminated against during the NOPD promotion process.

The domicile law came under renewed scrutiny in 1996, when crime soared and the NOPD became dangerously understaffed. At the time, Morial said the personnel plunge had nothing to do with the domicile requirement hindering recruitment or retention. He attributed the shortfall to poor pay and to Chief Richard Pennington's anti-corruption campaign. In December of that year, hundreds of angry citizens marched on City Hall after the "Louisiana Pizza Kitchen murders." Two months later, Morial and the City Council secured a substantial pay hike for police. More cops were hired, despite the tough domicile law. Violent crime plunged.

After an upswing, NOPD's staffing woes returned. Last week, NOPD had fewer than 1,650 officers -- well shy of its budgeted troop strength of 1,735 officers. Plus, it's been five years now since New Orleans cops received a pay raise. Many cops hired after 1997 have left, citing the city's failure to keep its recruiting promises for timely pay, promotional opportunities and take-home patrol cars. City officials blame chronic money woes, the kind Nagin is likely to face after taking office on May 6. In addition, race is not so clear-cut a factor as in past decades. Many African-American city employees view a move to the suburbs as opting for a higher quality of life for their families.

We urge the new mayor to carefully weigh his options before dismantling any of Mayor Morial's "pillars" of police reform. Pay increases and weeding out corruption remain central concerns. However, the outgoing mayor has exaggerated the benefits of the domicile law. We support Mayor-elect Nagin's move to repeal it.

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