Just in time for the citywide elections next February, the fight over New Orleans' so-called 'residency requirement' for city cops is heating up. To say that it will be a major campaign issue is the understatement of the political season. It could well become the issue.
Passions run high on both sides of the question, and the divide runs somewhat (though not exclusively) along racial lines – making the debate even more incendiary for those seeking political office in a city that is more than 70 percent African American.
Polls show that white voters are nearly unanimous in their opposition to the rule, which requires police officers to be 'domiciled' in the city limits. A majority of African-American voters supports the rule, although recent surveys suggest some of that support is softening in the face of violent crimes – and in the wake of Police Chief Eddie Compass' plea for more cops, even if they don't live in New Orleans. Compass is African American.
The legal definition of 'domicile' is much narrower than that of 'residence.' A person can have many residences, but only one domicile; one's domicile is one's principal or primary residence. Thus, the debate itself (mostly through the fault of the media) is misnamed. New Orleans doesn't have a residency rule; it has a domicile rule.
The rule was adopted about three decades ago, during the administration of then-Mayor Moon Landrieu. It was intended, in large measure, to help get more blacks into the ranks of NOPD. Supporters of the rule say it has worked, and they argue that the city's police force should reflect its population if the department hopes to serve citizens effectively. Opponents don't question that goal. Rather, they point to a perennial shortage of cops and a rash of murders as evidence that the rule, though well intentioned, has hurt efforts to get NOPD up to full strength. They want the rule suspended temporarily to see if NOPD can recruit qualified officers from surrounding parishes and get itself up to full strength.
In recent weeks, opponents of the rule appeared to be gathering momentum. They cite Compass' pleas for more cops as proof that the rule is hurting more than helping. City Council President Oliver Thomas and District A Councilman Jay Batt have introduced an ordinance suspending the rule for three years – as an experiment – to see if NOPD can attract qualified applicants from surrounding parishes. Thomas is African American, and his willingness to suspend the rule temporarily (like that of Compass) helps blunt the issue's racial edge.
Mayor Ray Nagin has said he will sign the ordinance if the Council passes it. Nagin has stopped short of endorsing the proposal outright, however. Instead, he cites survey figures from pollster Silas Lee that show upwards of 70 percent of the city's voters support suspending the rule to give Compass 'what he needs' to fight crime.
But the political fight is just beginning.
Last Wednesday, some 40 black business, civic and religious leaders rallied on the steps of City Hall to announce the formation of a coalition against relaxing the domicile rule. Groups represented at the rally included the NAACP, the Greater New Orleans Coalition of Ministers, the Black Economic Development Council and the Urban League. These are all major players in the African-American community, and their staunch support of the domicile rule tosses a political gauntlet at the feet of all public officials and candidates for public office – particularly those who plan to seek election (or re-election) next February.
In addition, a study commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce concluded that the city would suffer economically if it were to drop the domicile requirement. The report, by Early Howell & Associates, concluded that allowing city cops to live outside New Orleans would exacerbate population loss and further erode the city's tax base. 'While New Orleans' population is shrinking, migration by police will encourage migration by others,' the report stated.
The Chamber's membership is overwhelmingly white. So far, the organization has taken no position on the issue – or the report.
The debate is likely to grow more intense as the campaign season approaches. Nagin cannot duck the issue forever, though he appears determined to try.