A federal appeals court has upheld a residency requirement for Milwaukee police officers, firefighters and other emergency workers to live within 15 miles of city limits.
In December, the union representing rank-and-file officers appealed an earlier decision by a federal judge who said the city was allowed to require employees live within 15 miles of Milwaukee or risk being fired.
Mayor Tom Barrett praised the decision.
“I think the speed with which the 7th Circuit acted demonstrates just how close to frivolous this lawsuit was,” Barrett said.
State lawmakers did away with strict residency laws in 2013 — a decision Barrett said he still disagrees with — but allowed the 15-mile rule so safety personnel could respond quickly in a large-scale emergency.
“I still believe that it’s important and appropriate to have them within the community because I want them to be part of this community,” Barrett said. “The farther away they get, the less likely they are to be part of the community.”
The Milwaukee Police Association and two police officers had argued the city’s residency rule, when applied retroactively, violates officers’ constitutional rights to due process. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and upheld the earlier ruling from U.S. District Judge J.P. Stadtmueller.
“Although the statute here abolishes residency requirements generally, it does not create a vested right for law enforcement, fire and emergency personnel to live wherever they want,” Judge Michael S. Kanne wrote.
The police union respects the court, but believes the decision “fell short of proper consideration of our attorney’s argument,” said Michael Crivello, MPA president.
For decades, all city employees, with few exceptions, had to live within Milwaukee boundaries. In 2013, the state Legislature passed a law that undid all such strict residency requirements but did allow for cities to require certain employees, including police and firefighters, to live within 15 miles of city limits.
At that time, Milwaukee did not adopt a new rule but instead continued to enforce its residency rule. The police union sued. The state Supreme Court sided with the Legislature and the police union that the state law blocked the city’s historic residency requirements.
After that ruling, the city adopted the 15-mile zone limit and said employees outside that limit could be fired, but the city allowed employees six months to move into the zone and gave temporary exemptions based on financial hardship.
“The city had every opportunity to explain to the rank and file that they would enforce a 15-mile rule,” Crivello said. “They chose not to, ultimately placing families in situations that turned lives on end.”
The Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission, which is responsible for hiring in those departments, added five “preference points” for applicants who live in the city. Applicants who earn a passing score on any entry-level exam and meet certain criteria are entitled to up to 10 extra points.
In addition to residency, extra points are given for education and veteran status. Applicants who are graduates of two-year or four-year higher education programs related to their field are given three and five points, respectively. Qualified veterans receive three points.
Last month, the commission approved lowering the veteran points from 10-plus to three to make it more consistent with education and residency points. The commission is committed to its testing process that enables the city “to hire the most qualified and community-minded candidates, which includes military personnel,” said Steven DeVougas, commission chairman.
The police union has condemned the veteran change, with its president, Crivello, saying it was “dishonorable to those that should be honored.”