The Baltimore City Police Department employs more people than any other department of city government, yet most of its officers live outside the city. Many residents like the idea of police officers living in their communities because they view them as a deterrent to crime and because they believe officers would have a better understanding of neighborhood problems if they had homes in the area. But if Baltimore hopes to encourage more officers to live where they work, it must develop more effective strategies for getting and keeping them here.
A recent report by the Abell Foundation suggests that housing incentives that target police officers could persuade many who currently live outside the city to become Baltimore residents. The incentives could take the form of individual benefits, such as subsidized rents or down-payment assistance on a home. Or they could be more generalized services and support aimed at making it easier for officers to relocate into the city, such as an information clearinghouses or websites that provide one-stop shopping for housing opportunities. Such incentive programs have been offered in Atlanta, Washington, Detroit and New Haven, where, the report suggests, they have helped contribute to those cities' revitalization by making it more likely that other residents will choose to live there as well.
The Abell report argues that even a modest increase in the number of officers living in the city could improve public safety in their neighborhoods and foster better relations between the department and local residents. More city-based police officers would also advance Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's long-term goal of growing Baltimore's population by 10,000 new families over the next decade. Over a period of 14 months, a police housing incentive in Atlanta, for example, attracted 71 participants in the program, or about 6 percent of all the officers living outside the city.
Persuading city police officers to live and raise families in the communities they serve has never been easy, however. Part of the problem involves officers' concern that they or their families could be targeted for retribution by people in the neighborhood whom they have stopped or arrested. Many officers are uncomfortable living in places where they are likely to have casual, nonprofessional encounters with the public they police, and they are particularly reluctant to live in high-crime areas where they could potentially be "on duty" all the time.
Police officers regard themselves as professionals who want the same things for their families that other professionals want: a safe, pleasant environment in which to make a home, good neighbors and excellent neighborhood schools to educate their children. Most officers don't believe they can afford private school tuition, but they value education. That is one of the main reasons they often prefer suburban schools. But at least some of them might be persuaded to move to the city if, in addition to housing incentives, it offered education benefits for their children, such as preferential admission to public charter schools or tuition subsidies at private and parochial schools.
The Abell report's findings suggest there are many communities in Baltimore that could be made both attractive and affordable to police officers, especially younger members of the department and new recruits. Moderate-income neighborhoods such as Belair-Edison, Ednor Gardens, Charles Village, Ashburton, Ten Hills, Butchers Hill and Remington all have active neighborhood associations whose members would welcome more professionals of all kinds living in their midst.
But for that to happen, the city must develop a more thoughtful approach to the problem and the right combination of benefits and housing incentives to make Baltimore a city in which its officers want to live as well as work. Many police officers may still be reluctant to live in the communities they serve, but for those who are willing to give it a try, the city should make every effort to make Baltimore a place they can call home.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun