JEFFERSON CITY — A plan to repeal a requirement that St. Louis police personnel live within the city limits received enthusiastic support in a House committee hearing Tuesday.
The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Ron Hicks, R-Dardenne Prairie, would allow police to live outside the city limits as long as their residence is within a one-hour response time.
Hicks downplayed concerns that the change could result in an exodus of officers looking to live in the suburbs.
“I don’t think they’re all going to jump ship and leave the city,” Hicks said.
The legislation is one piece of a potential package of changes in state law designed to address gun violence in the city.
Although Democrats want to boost background checks for gun buyers and restrict who can possess a firearm, Republicans who control the House and Senate have said they will not entertain those proposals in the lead-up to the November general election.
Faced with an impasse over guns, Republican leaders and St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson are focusing on how to improve law enforcement in a city that is short an estimated 138 officers.
Krewson turned to the Legislature for assistance after the Board of Aldermen rejected her request to put before voters a city charter amendment that would repeal the residency requirement for most city workers.
She said allowing officers to live where they want is among several steps that her administration is taking to address St. Louis’ continuing problems with violent crime, underscored by the seven killings that occurred in the first two days of the new year.
Krewson, who trekked to the Capitol to voice her support for the legislation, acknowledged that many residents like having police living close to them.
“Everyone wants a police officer to live on their block, bring a car home and park it in front of their house. But we’re 138 police officers short as of today. We’re recruiting like crazy but that number has stayed more or less the same for the last five years,” Krewson said.
“We’re a small city. 62 square miles. We’re the only jurisdiction in the whole area that has a residency requirement. No one else has that. That’s why it’s important to level the recruiting and retention playing field,” Krewson said.
Under the city charter, anyone may apply for full-time jobs within city departments. If applicants aren’t already residents of St. Louis, they must take up residency in the city within 120 days of their initial probationary period. Applicants unwilling to move to the city cannot be considered, though there are exceptions for some police department employees and firefighters.
The plan has the support of both management and labor.
Police Chief John Hayden called recruiting and retention the No. 1 issue facing the department.
“We are discouraging applicants who can walk on to the St. Louis County police department,” Hayden said. “We need the ability to double our applicant pool as soon as possible.”
St. Louis Police Officers Association President Jay Schroeder told the panel that the residency rule is an “obstacle” to hiring.
“I believe if we eliminated residency we’d have more officers on the street,” Schroeder said.
Republican Attorney General Eric Schmitt also spoke in support of the plan.
“It’s one thing we can do to address violent crime in St. Louis city,” Schmitt said. “We want to be able to recruit from a broader pool of applicants.”