Tim Stevens

For more than 100 years, Pittsburgh police officers, like most city employees, have been required to live in the city where they work. But that practice may now be over.

A labor arbitration award announced March 13 would allow officers to live anywhere within 25 miles from the City County Building on Grant Street, which not only includes all of Allegheny County, but parts of Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland Counties too.

The ruling only applies to the city’s 842 rank-and-file officers, represented by the Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge 1, not to command staff, and results from a 2012 state law that allows residency requirements to be negotiated.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto is weighing whether or not to appeal the award in court. During his campaign, he said he would be willing to negotiate away the residency requirement in exchange for changes in areas like minority recruiting and retention.

With the arbitrators’ ruling, that leverage is essentially gone. FOP President Mike LaPorte said those other changes would have to be negotiated through collective bargaining after the current contract expires in December.

During the November general election a referendum was added to the ballot asking Pittsburgh residents if police and fire employees should be required to live in the city. Eighty percent of the voters said yes.

Black Political Empowerment Project Director Tim Stevens has never liked this idea, and was one of the strongest supporters of 2013 ballot referendum in which voters overwhelmingly supported keeping the residency requirement for all city employees.

“It’s hard to believe but, as bad as it has been trying to get more African-Americans into the police force, it’s going to get worse,” he said. “The Black population in Pittsburgh is around 27 percent. In Allegheny County it’s 13 percent, and it’s worse in the surrounding counties. This severely waters down the applicant pool.”

Another issue with the city’s increasingly White police force, is that their interactions with Black communities are already drawing criticism, especially with charges of excessive force coming from the arrests of Jordan Miles, the El brothers, Dennis Henderson and Leon Ford.

The officers don’t know the neighborhoods or who the real bad guys are. And because they have no relationship with the Black neighborhoods, they have been seen as an “occupying force.”

Community Empowerment Association Inc. President and CEO Rashad Byrdsong said that impression would be amplified if officers had no vested interest in the city at all.

“Now when I’ve said they were an occupying force, I meant it in terms of the militarization, the equipment, of the police. That said, this is the opposite of community policing, where officers were living in the community and there were often more preventative practices in place,” he said.

“Besides, we voted on this. What significance does that have? If they don’t want to live in the city, they should get jobs where they want to live.”

City Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess, who introduced the residency requirement referendum, acknowledged last year that an arbitration award in favor of the union could render it symbolic, but not entirely.

“I have to think an appeals judge would give the overwhelming voice of the people some weight,” he said.

LaPorte continues to maintain that officers with children in city schools are fearful of retaliation from relatives and friends of those they’ve arrested, but he doesn’t expect a huge exodus. He said the ruling also expands the potential labor pool.

“This ruling gives the City of Pittsburgh an opportunity to get the best candidates for the position of police officer,” he said.

The award was signed by Bryan Campbell, attorney for the FOP and neutral arbitrator John Skonier. Joseph Quinn, the third arbitrator who represented the city, refused to sign. Instead, he wrote a one-page dissent, saying the panel exceeded its authority and its’ ruling ignored the will of the people and misapplied the state law.

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburgh­courier.com.)

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