Why Mayor Silva’s police housing incentive program was a good idea

August 1, 2013

 

Earlier this year, the city of Stockton was embroiled in a battle between two competing crime initiatives: Mayor Silva’s Stockton Safe Streets plan and the long-awaited city Marshall Plan. Eventually, the mayor’s plan was withdrawn and support was thrown behind the Marshall Plan to be placed on the ballot in November, when voters in Stockton will decide its fate.

While Stockton Safe Streets is no longer on the table, the plan did introduce some concepts that warrant further consideration. Specifically, getting more Stockton Police officers to live in the city.

Unlike more scrutinized aspects of the Stockton Safe Streets plan, the “Live in Stockton Incentive Fund” is a less controversial, low-risk idea that could deter crime, improve community relations, stabilize neighborhoods and serve as a recruitment incentive without tapping into city finances.

With Stockton planning to hire more than 100 officers in the next couple of years (pending the passage of the Marshall Plan tax increase), a well-thought out police housing fund could prove to be a boon to Stockton’s neighborhoods.

How it works

The idea is fairly straightforward: an organization — the city, a foundation, a nonprofit — teams up with a police department to offer a financial incentive for police officers to live in the city, many times in a particular neighborhood. This assistance can come in the form of a forgivable loan or cash for a down payment for purchasing a home. Some programs offer cash incentives to rent in a specific area as well. These programs may also connect new officers to resources that help them transition into homeownership in the city.

There are several ways to fund these programs. In Detroit, the city uses Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) money from the federal government. In Atlanta, the Atlanta Police Foundation raises money from corporate and private donations as well as fundraising events. In Baltimore, some housing programs are funded by the city and matched by institutions or foundations such as Johns Hopkins University (most of the information presented in this article comes from a report from the Abell Foundation in Baltimore).

Reducing Crime

A handful of studies suggest that increasing police presence through a housing incentive program can serve as a crime deterrent for two reasons. The first reason is higher visibility.

The physical presence of an officer living on the block makes criminals wary of committing a crime in the immediate area, especially if that officer is allowed to bring his or her squad car home (I’m not sure what Stockton Police’s policy is on this).

Residents are also more comfortable sharing information with an officer if that person is also a neighbor. Having an officer across the street helps to forge positive relationships with people in the community who may otherwise never interact with law enforcement unless they are reporting a crime. Also, more officers make people feel safer and increases their overall satisfaction and trust with their police department.

Where Stockton stands

According to a 2011 article in The Record, about 45 percent of Stockton police officers reside in the city, which is actually a very reasonable percentage compared to other cities.

For example, In San Francisco, only 25 percent of officers reside in the city. In Oakland, just 54 officers total live in town, about 8 percent of the department’s 614 officers. Nationally, Stockton has a higher percentage than Atlanta (22 percent), Baltimore (28 percent) and Chattanooga (42 percent). On the other end of the spectrum, cities such as Pittsburgh, PA actually mandate that emergency responders reside within city limits, though these requirements are becoming less common and are unpopular with police officers.

How this could work in Stockton With the city planning to hire more than 100 officers in the coming years, there is ample time to put together a well-designed police housing incentive program that can provide a significant boost to the community. While many current officers with families and houses are less inclined to move into the city or to a different neighborhood, newer and younger recruits with uncertain housing situations could find the program helpful.

This program should be targeted to specific areas of the city to be as effective as possible. A city-wide housing program ignores the neighborhoods that would benefit much more than others by the presence of a police officer.

For example, if the goal is to revitalize communities and deter crime, it wouldn’t make as much sense to subsidize an officer to live in a gated community where crime is already relatively low. On the other end of the spectrum, incentivizing housing solely in high-crime areas is not likely to be popular among officers. Instead, incentives should be focused on “middlemarket and middle-market stressed” neighborhoods. In Stockton, these incentives may be most efficient in areas such as midtown where housing may be more desirable than higher crime areas but less stable than more conventional developments such as Brookside or Spanos.

Further, this program could weight neighborhoods differently, providing more assistance based on the condition of the area, as explained in an earlier Stockton City Limits article on the benefits of a Live Near Your Work program for the University of the Pacific.

As noted above, there are several ways in which a city can fund such a program. In particular, shifting NSP funds into a housing incentive program could be a more efficient use of these funds since having an officer purchase a house does more to “stabilize” a neighborhood than a typical owneroccupant. The Stockton Police Foundation could raise funds as well through donations and fundraisers. Corporations and institutions may also be eager to financially support a program that brings stability to their surrounding areas.

A police housing incentive program is a fairly low-risk approach with potentially significant impacts, but the goals of such a program should also be realistic. Several cities that have adopted these programs have had a relatively small number of officers participate, but that doesn’t mean that the program isn’t working. Housing incentives are viewed as popular by many officers, even if they do not initially plan to take advantage of the program, and can also help police departments forge new or strengthen existing relationships with community organizations.

When asked about their program, the Atlanta Police Foundation program manager explained that this is a long-term investment, and that a city should never expect to convince all officers to move into the city. With this in mind, I believe that this is a practical program that should be considered in Stockton. The risk is low, money can come from sources other than the city general fund, and even if just a few officers initially take advantage, that is a few streets that now have residents that feel a little safer.

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