More than one in five Pittsburgh police officers reside beyond the Pittsburgh city limits, just a year after gaining the right to live outside the city.
Following a decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court last May, the police residency rule was loosened to allow officers to reside within 25 air miles of the City-County Building in downtown Pittsburgh. An analysis of city personnel records by 90.5 WESA shows that 195 of 869 officers, or 22 percent, now live outside Pittsburgh.
They’ve scattered among 73 municipalities, ranging from Allegheny Township in Westmoreland County to Zelienople in Butler County.
The most popular community appears to be Bethel Park just south of Pittsburgh, with 14 officers. Shaler is also a favorite, with 11 officers. Hampton and Ross come in third, with eight officers a piece.
Click on individual municipalities to see where officers outside Pittsburgh live:
Since 1902, officers had been required to live within the city boundaries. Almost a year into the new regime, Pitt law professor David Harris was struck by the number of officers already living outside the city.
“I’m surprised at how rapidly it happened,” he said. “That’s pretty quick for just a year.”
Pittsburgh city councilor Daniel Lavelle was also surprised.
“I wouldn’t have guessed it to be that high,” he said. “I think it’s unfortunate. I think it’s sad in many respects."
Lavelle, who chairs council’s Public Safety Committee, supported the former residency requirement in the belief that officers should reside among the people they serve. It’s important, Lavelle said, for police and the public to interact outside of a law enforcement context.
The year-old ruling, Lavelle added, “obviously … goes directly against the wishes of the residents that [the police] swore to protect and serve.”
In 2013, Pittsburgh voters overwhelmingly passed a ballot measure that would have preserved the old residency rule. But last May’s state Supreme Court decision held that residency is subject to collective bargaining. That had the effect of waiving the requirement.
The president of Pittsburgh’s police union, Bob Swartzwelder, had long wanted to negotiate less strict residency rules. He wasn’t fazed to learn nearly 200 officers now reside outside the city.
“A lot of our officers did move primarily for children because they wanted to put them in a good school district,” he said. “Secondly, the tax rate in the city is very high.”
Swartzwelder said younger officers were especially likely to relocate so they could raise families in the suburbs. Indeed, city data show that more than two-thirds of officers hired in the past year now live outside the city.
‘Minimal’ tax effect, but there could be other consequences
There was concern that a mass exodus of officers would hurt Pittsburgh’s tax base. But 90.5 WESA’s analysis shows that officers living outside the city would have paid approximately $366,000 in earned income tax to the city over a year.
In a $555 million city budget, the loss of officers’ tax dollars has a “minimal” impact, according to Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.
But Harris, an expert on criminal justice and police-community relations, said there could be political consequences for the police.
“There is a feeling among people, when they hear that folks who work within the city don’t live in the city, [of] ‘is this not good enough for you?’” Harris said. “There’s sort of an economic argument, too. [Residents] feel they are paying the salaries through their tax money; they want that money to remain in the city at least in some way.”
And these sentiments could erode public support for raising police salaries or buying new equipment for officers, Harris said.
He noted, however, that the eased residency requirement could benefit the city in concrete ways.
First, the new rule allows the police department “to cast a wider net for talent when we hire the next class of police officers.”
Swartzwelder said this development is encouraging at a time when the force continues to face significant staffing shortages. In fact, he said Pittsburgh is attracting recruits from surrounding communities.
“Now they’re all applying because the city offers a lot more different types of police work than a basic municipality does,” Swartzwelder said.
Harris added that more flexibility around residency could help to retain officers who will ultimately settle outside the city to raise families.
“And this will help retain some of those officers that we want to keep, that we’ve already trained, that are in our system,” Harris said. “And that’s a big cost-savings in the long run.”
Any impact on police-community relations?
Brandi Fisher, president of Pittsburgh’s Alliance for Police Accountability, maintains that the city should instead limit the distance between officers and those they serve.
“[The former] residency requirement [was] one way to ensure that police officers build real relationships with the people that they serve,” Fisher said, “and that they treat them as human beings and that they would treat them as their neighbors because they literally would be.”
Harris contended that, when it comes to police-community relations, research suggests where officers live is less important than their conduct on the job.
Beth Pittinger, Executive Director of Pittsburgh’s Citizen Police Review Board said, as best as she can tell, police officers’ zip codes haven’t been a factor in the complaints her organization gets from residents.
“There is absolutely nothing I would attribute to police officers moving out of the city of Pittsburgh,” Pittinger said.
Even when officers were required to live in the city, Harris noted, they tended to cluster in certain neighborhoods, leaving large swaths of the city with very few resident officers.
Activist Fisher conceded that, with proper training and cultural sensitivity, officers can engage effectively with city residents regardless of where they live.
Retired Pittsburgh police officer Chuck Bosetti agreed.
“What they’re really talking about is, are you an empathetic, mature, responsible human being who has a basic understanding of the people around you - where they live, what they do, and what they’re faced with?” Bosetti said. “And you don’t need to live next door to them to find that out.”
Swartzwelder, of Pittsburgh’s police union, said what really matters is the leadership within the police department.
"Are you properly training, educating, equipping, and overseeing and leading that organization?” he said. “That's what creates professional police officers - not where they live."
In any case, Swartzwelder and Peduto expect the number of officers living outside the city to continue to grow.