The class of 84 recruits learning what it takes to be a Memphis police officer surely have many differences, but they all also have one thing in common: They live in Shelby County.
That’s because department policy mandates it.
But Memphis Police Department Director Michael Rallings says the residency requirement is hampering recruitment at a time when the force is desperately understaffed.
There are just short of 2,100 police officers in the MPD. Rallings said the department needs 2,600 to work at an optimal level.
“Residency, without a doubt, is probably one of the most important things that we can address,” Rallings said Thursday during a lunch with the Frayser Exchange Club. “I hope that council and the administration will take it up. If they ask me, I’m not concerned with where an officer lives as long as they come to work and serve the citizens of Memphis with compassion, with concern and with professionalism. That’s all that matters.”
Recruitment and retention woes have plagued the department over the past four years. The police department has hired about 450 new officers since January 2016, but in that time lost 470, city data shows.
Also helping to aid recruitment efforts is a referendum that raised the sales tax rate by half a percent to pay for police and fire benefits and pension. The tax hike passed on Oct. 3.
Rallings said it’s too soon to say when that might go into effect, but he will work with city officials to work out how officers will see the benefit.
“We want to make sure our officers are compensated and have a benefits package that they think they deserve. I think this is a step in the right direction,” he said.
Policing as a shared responsibility
Rallings went on to emphasize to the Frayser crowd that they too are responsible for making sure that Memphis’ streets are safe.
He said one of the most common indicators that someone might later commit murder or participate in other violent crime is if they see violence in their homes. He also said a large number of children and teenagers in juvenile detention struggle with literacy. Both of these issues stem from the home, he said.
“A lot of this stuff has been relinquished to the police department,” Rallings said. “Folks, that model cannot be successful.”
He then went on to tell the group of about 50 people — who were mostly sympathetic to the police department — that public safety should be seen as a group effort and that they should be working in partnership with officers, not rallying against them.
This summer, the Frayser community was in an uproar after members of the U.S. Marshals Service shot and killed 20-year-old Brandon Webber. The death led to a briefly violent protest during which people threw bricks, injuring several Memphis police officers.
While Rallings didn’t address the shooting or the protest directly, he urged the crowd to wait before casting judgment on police officers when similar incidents happen, adding that there is always more to the story than is initially available in news reports and on social media.
Despite the shortage of police officers, Rallings wrapped up his speech by saying that crime had fallen by 6% across the city, representing about 2,400 fewer crime victims. Still, he said, more needs to be done.
“There is no city that needs their police department like Memphis,” he said. “So we need to resolve to commit ourselves to solve these very, very difficult problems that are very deeply entrenched problems. There’s not going to be a magic wand … We’re challenged on every single challenge. Medical, housing, financial. We have work to do.”