Legislators are considering a proposal that would restrict cities from making firefighters and police officers live in the cities in which they work.
Senate Bill 1231 would prohibit cities, towns and fire districts from placing residency requirements on firefighters or police as a condition of employment unless the area has a population of less than 5,000. The bill also exempts executive level firefighters or peace officers.
“This bill, in my opinion, is a very significant bill,” Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, told the Senate Government Committee last month. Boyer, the bill’s sponsor, contended that firefighters and police in areas such as Sedona and Flagstaff are having difficulty finding affordable housing options within the city limits.
Boyer also argued that the same issues can be found in rural communities.
Currently, only one municipality in Arizona has a true residency requirement for its public safety officials, the small city of St. Johns in eastern Arizona.
Other cities have more relaxed restrictions like Lake Havasu which requires that they live within 100 miles of the city.
Members of the firefighting and police unions spoke before the committee in support of the measure, saying it would help bolster recruitment.
“These are major lifestyle changes,” Bryan Jefferies, President of the Professional Firefighters of Arizona, said about residency requirements at the committee. Jefferies argued that cities want residency requirements for tax purposes and in order to have people in the city in case of an emergency.
The Arizona League of Cities and Towns supports the bill, though a lobbyist for the organization told lawmakers it would like to see the exemption on executive-level staff removed.
In 2014, when protests erupted in Ferguson over the police killing of Michael Brown, discussions about residency requirements were reignited when it was discovered that the majority of police in that area lived outside of the community.
An analysis by FiveThirtyEight found that both Phoenix and Tucson have less than half of their police departments living within the communities they serve.
Residency requirements were first implemented back in the 1900s, but have gone in and out of style ever since.
In 1976, a Philadelphia firefighter argued that residency requirements were unconstitutional and took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. The court ruled against the firefighter who wanted to move out of the city, and he was subsequently fired.
One of the main ideas behind current residency requirements is to aid in diversifying the police force to more closely resemble the communities it serves.
But that isn’t becoming the case in some areas, according to researchers.
Newark, New Jersey, has one of the highest racial disparities within its force, according to a data analysis by FiveThirtyEight, despite having a residency requirement.
Additionally, residency requirements have been found to be loosely enforced and easily circumvented.
In Ferguson, officers are able to move out of the city after seven years, and an investigation by the Boston Globe found 13 of the 22 top leaders in Boston’s Police Department lived outside the city.
The bill has passed the Senate and is currently awaiting a hearing by the House Public Safety Committee.