In a recent op-ed, MPD Chief Cerelyn "C.J." Davis said, “… Requiring potential police candidates to live in Shelby County to join MPD reduces our capacity to reach our public safety goals for the city." (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/ GSW Enterprises/The New Tri-State Defender)

by James Coleman —

Anticipating possible superseding legislation by the Tennessee General Assembly this year, the Memphis City Council Tuesday (Jan. 4) delayed until April the first reading on a police residency referendum.

At issue is the hotly debated question of whether Memphis voters should have the opportunity to decide whether police officers and firefighters should be allowed to live outside Shelby County. 

The legislature is expected to consider legislation banning such residency requirements for public safety employees statewide. The legislation passed in the Senate last year but stalled in the House. The 2022 legislative session kicks off next week in Nashville.

Also, Memphis Police Chief C.J. Davis has announced support for the ban, along with Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland.

Councilmember Ford Canale suggested the pause and member Jeff Warren offered the date. The delay drew no objections.

Two likely supporters of the ban were also absent for the vote in the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee. 

The referendum would loosen requirements by allowing police and firefighters to live within a 50-mile radius of the city. The City Charter currently requires personnel to reside in Shelby County. 

If the council approves the referendum, it would be on the August ballot, depending on what happens in the General Assembly. 

The state bill would permit first responders to live where they choose. Sponsors on the Senate side are Paul Rose of Covington and Brian Kelsey of Germantown. Memphians Mark White and John Gillespie, and Republican Caucus chairman Jerry Faison of Crosby are its backers in the House. 

“Reducing violent crime, public safety and safe streets are the number-one priority of the residents of Memphis,” said White, in a statement.

In an op-ed column published in The Commercial Appeal newspaper Monday (Jan. 3), Chief Davis said, “… Requiring potential police candidates to live in Shelby County to join MPD reduces our capacity to reach our public safety goals for the city. We know there are highly qualified candidates who live less than 30 minutes on the other side of the county line. They may want to come to Memphis to serve, but don’t want to give up their homes. And, an officer may also need to consider where their spouse works when choosing where to live.

Lifting the residency requirement will give MPD a crucial tool to attract candidates who do not have to make a move across the country but may simply have a little farther to drive to get to work…”

Council members’ interest in easing requirements has intensified as the city’s violent crime rate – including a record 346 homicides in 2021 – has soared.

Recruitment and retention efforts have also fallen short in recent years. With the MPD ranks currently under 2,000 officers, policymakers hope to up the count to 2,500.

The moribund numbers drew the attention of state lawmakers. Polling data from the Memphis and Shelby Crime Commission indicates public support, also.

“Studies have shown that the Memphis Police Department is understaffed by several hundred officers and that as the number of officers in the police force increases, the levels of violent crime in Memphis decrease. This bill will aid efforts to make our streets safer,” White argued.

An effort at a similar referendum failed in 2020 when Davis’ predecessor, Michael Rallings, couldn’t close the deal with the council. It failed on a 7-6 vote.

A first reading also was delayed on Dec. 21 after council member Michalyn Easter-Thomas, an opponent of the rules change, asked the item to be pulled from the consent agenda.

The move provoked the ire of members Chase Carlisle and Worth Morgan, who accused her of trying to kill the resolution on its first reading.