ST. LOUIS — The city’s police department is about 135 officers short of full strength and suffers from a shortage of qualified city residents interested in joining its ranks.
The only thing holding back St. Louisan Ryan Lynch from rejoining the force last year was a residency policy that would keep him from moving out of the city.
When Mayor Lyda Krewson pledged to support residency waivers for the next 50 hires who asked for them, Lynch jumped.
He’s now one of two officers who have expressed interest in the waivers but probably won’t get them.
Their situations are the latest layer of contention when it comes to the city’s residency requirements.
Through decades, the residency issue has been debated, legislated and litigated. The aldermanic Public Employees Committee on Wednesday will begin considering a bill that would abolish the requirement for all employees. If the bill passes, the matter would go before voters.
Krewson said she supports a repeal for all employees. She called her waivers a “stop-gap measure” for police.
Lynch has been told he’s not eligible for a waiver, and the reasons have varied, said his wife, Michelle Lynch, who spoke on his behalf because the department forbids officers from speaking to reporters. She said her husband left police work in 2017 to try a corporate job but decided serving and protecting was his passion.
When he recently asked about a waiver, the department told him his previous service disqualified him because he was technically not a recruit. They also said he already lives in the city and the charter forbids employees from moving out, Michelle Lynch said.
The second officer could not be reached for comment, but, along with Lynch, is the subject of a police union grievance alleging that Krewson did not properly negotiate the waivers and that they should apply to all officers, not just those hired after her announcement.
The Police Officers Association has opposed the residency requirement since it was enacted in May 1973. Over the years, pensions have been threatened and families have lived apart to avoid violation of the policy.
Krewson said she sympathizes with the Lynches. “This wasn’t what we were thinking about when I said, ‘Let’s do 50 waivers.’”
Clock is ticking
About 550 of about 1,870 police department employees already live outside the city limits. They won that right in 2005 when the police commissioners decided to allow officers with seven years of service to live outside the city, effective immediately.
Commonly cited reasons for employees wanting to live elsewhere include the quality of public education and crime, Personnel Director Richard Frank said. But other reasons include spouses wanting to be closer to their jobs, or a preference for a more rural environment, Frank said.
For the Lynch family, it’s schools. They believe a school in the county would better serve their autistic twin boys.
Firefighters sought the same seven-year option through the state Legislature, and got it in 2010.
Now, about 270 of the fire department’s 700 or so employees — or about 40 percent — live outside the city, Frank said.
But the firefighters’ exception had a catch: Firefighters could move out as long as the St. Louis Public Schools were not fully accredited, or for five years after the district regained full accreditation, which it did in 2017.
“The clock is ticking for a lot of people,” Frank said.
That includes police.
The department was run by the state when officers won permission to move out of the city. The city regained control of the police department in September 2013. Police Chief John Hayden said in an interview Thursday that only officers hired before then can move out after seven years.
In an interview Saturday, Krewson disagreed, saying policies in place during the state control of the department carried over when the city took control.
That debate won’t be tested until September 2020 when the first officers hired under city control reach seven years and can apply to move out of the city
Krewson is hoping voters will make the confusion moot by changing the city’s charter to repeal all residency requirements for all city employees.
First, the Board of Aldermen would have to agree to put the plan on the ballot. Previous efforts have failed.
But there is another way — through the state Legislature.
State Rep. Ron Hicks, R-Dardenne Prairie, filed a bill that would have repealed residency requirements for all municipal police departments earlier this year.
“It died on the vine,” said Jeff Roorda, business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers Association.
Some residents and aldermen have opposed repealing residency, saying having officers live in the city they patrol invests them in the community and makes them better officers.
Michelle Lynch disagrees.
“I grew up in the city and he grew up here — we’re very vested in the success of the city. Whether we reside on a different side of River Des Peres doesn’t make us any less invested in loving St. Louis city, because we both really do,” she said.
Frank is among those who support repealing the residency requirement.
“It’s Byzantine,” he said. “The residency requirement severely limits our ability to recruit and retain,” he said. “People may not be able to sell their house, have financial or other reasons they don’t want to move to the city, so we’re not able to recruit from Jennings, Illinois, Jefferson County or even St. Louis County.”
Ultimately, the Civil Service Commission decides who gets waivers. Frank serves as secretary to the commission, which is composed of three members appointed by the mayor.
According to the city charter, those who do get waivers must have them renewed every year.
Frank said he anticipates the commission will grant waivers to those who are eligible, but Michelle Lynch said the uncertainty isn’t fair. “Who wants to live like that? Year to year not knowing if you’ll get approval?”
Lynch said her husband would quit the force and apply with a department in the county when their twins are closer to school age.
“He will be willing to leave the job he loves because it’s more important to get them the care they need,” Michelle Lynch said.
Their boys are 2½ years old.
Mark Schlinkmann of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.