Council debate over Memphis police, firefighter residency gets heated

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A passionate debate about police and firefighter residency Tuesday was highlighted with one City Council member storming out of the session.

In an effort to improve recruitment and retention, the City of Memphis has re-energized a referendum to allow officers to live within two hours of the city.

It’s become a circular debate in Memphis: Do the police officers and firefighters who risk their lives in Memphis need to actually live here?

"If giving your life and risking your life is not enough, I’m not sure what they want,” Police Director Michael Rallings said.

Everyone seems to agree that in an ideal world, every employee of the city of Memphis would live in and pay taxes here, but the Memphis Police Department is trying to enhance recruitment.

Staff numbers have improved in recent years, but are still short of their goal for 2,300 officers. The best solution is still up for debate.

Councilman Joe Brown said the city needed to use new tactics to increase police numbers.

"We gotta go out and use a marketing strategy, a PR strategy, to recruit some of these young people in Memphis and Shelby county to be law enforcement personnel. Change the salary if we have to.”

But Councilman Kemp Conrad responded, saying the city's the police department had already increased recruitment by several hundred.

"We are doing a great job in recruiting," Conrad said. "I’ve made calls, other council members have made calls. So when I hear, 'Hey, you’re not doing enough,' I don’t think Councilman Brown has brought one idea to the table about what new we can be doing.”

The issue got so heated that at one point, Brown walked out in the middle of a debate.

"It’s a good debate to have," Conrad said. I think we’ll have a good professional debate and I think we’ll come to a good decision, and the right decision. And all we’re doing is sending this to the voter’s to vote on.”

The issue is scheduled to be revisited in two weeks with additional information provided by law enforcement.

According to numbers provided by the city, about 45% of Memphis police officers and firefighters live in Memphis, while another 43% live in Shelby County outside Memphis. The rest live outside Shelby County, and were grandfathered in after the current residency requirements were established 14 years ago.

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