Get Comfortable

Generally, it’s what most people do prior to watching a movie. It also happens to be the expectation for newly hired personnel when it comes to the requirement that they must live in New Bedford. 

The residency requirement has been an area of focus of late, both for police officers as well as non-union employees of the city. Once again, for officers of the New Bedford Police Department, this is an area which is covered in the collective bargaining agreement between the city and the New Bedford Police Union. For non-union city employees, the process is a little different and has been covered in depth by local journalists. 

In an article written by Arthur Hirsch of The New Bedford Light which covered the Mayor Mitchell’s desire to scale back proposed pay raises for city department managers and specialists, the topic of residency was also touched on. In his article, Mr. Hirsch provided background information regarding the ordinance which had been adopted by the City Council as well as ample information pertaining to proposed amendments by the mayor. Information regarding an extended study which compared the salaries of New Bedford to similar municipalities was also referenced by Mr. Hirsch. 

A quote from the mayor was included in Mr. Hirsch’s article which referenced the City Council’s proposal, 

“What the council did was arbitrary” 

Mr. Hirsch then referred to a cover letter written by the mayor which noted that the City Council’s recommendations for wage increases were not supported by data. 

Data. Some realize how truly important it is. Others find themselves trying to recall the actor’s name who played the character on a television series. In some cases the latter use a search engine to confirm the actor’s name and subsequently acknowledge how important data is. 

The amount of weight some data carries can certainly convey a clear message. For instance, the article by Mr. Hirsch included a statement from the mayor that the city of New Bedford was 200 employees shy of a 1,300 employee total. In percentage terms, that is approximately 85% of a full complement. 

We can then compare that to the staffing of the New Bedford Police Department. If the budgeted number of officers is 258 and the current number of officers stands at 210, then that is approximately 81% of a full compliment and expected to drop further in the near future. 

While the challenges in recruitment and retention are due to a number of factors, the residency requirement certainly plays a role. Even the mayor agrees. Referencing the subject of residency, Mr. Hirsch included another quote from Mayor Mitchell’s cover letter where the mayor wrote, 

“I expressed my serious concern that the sweeping residency ordinance passed by the Council would make it more difficult for the City to attract talent.”

That ordinance pertaining to non-union city employees imposed a 10% penalty for employees residing outside the city. That penalty would be lifted upon ten (10) years of service by the employee. 

The argument in support of city employees living in New Bedford may be understandable on the surface. It seems though, that the mayor’s concerns were justified considering the vacant number of city positions cited in Mr. Hirsch’s article. 

It is also interesting considering the fact that increasing the residency requirement has been an area where the City of New Bedford has focused its attention with regard to the police department in the recent past. 

The current residency requirement for officers does not impose a penalty, but does require officers hired prior to March 24, 2018, to live in the city for no less than four (4) consecutive years. Officers hired after March 24, 2018 are required to live in the city for no less than ten (10) consecutive years. Yes, ten. 

Why is this important? Because the City of New Bedford submitted a contract proposal which included mandatory residency as a condition of employment for a past collective bargaining agreement, the term of which was July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2021. Basically, if you work here, you live here. 

The city argued that the mandatory residency requirement would strengthen officer’s connection with the community and promote community trust, but offered no data to support that suggestion. A table was included which listed residency requirements for other city unions, but no data in those tables to support their theory that those agreements had any effect on community relations. Another item of note is that Chief Oliveira (Deputy Chief at the time of the initial contract proposal) testified that an increase in the residency requirement would have a negative impact on the hiring and retention of police officers. 

This data is readily available to review, as an impasse between the City of New Bedford and the New Bedford Police Union resulted in the matter being brought before the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Joint Labor-Management Committee for arbitration. The link below will allow the full decision to be viewed. Those who review the document may also notice that data from comparable communities was referred to in the arbitration decision.  

There is no doubt that having a connection to the community you work in is important, especially in policing. There are doubts, though, which arise when the suggestion is made that stronger connections cannot be formed and community trust cannot be earned without being forced to live in the community you serve. 

Thought must also be given to the job being done. Even in attempting to evaluate a mandatory residency proposal from the lens of the former New Bedford police chief, who was not a New Bedford resident, it seems like an arbitrary move. 

While some officers live in the city, other officers do not. In some cases, officers who live in the city prefer to work in the areas where they live, other officers do not. Interactions with community leaders, stakeholders, business owners and citizens do not require a prerequisite on the part of the officer that they are a city resident. Each of the officers who live in the city can explain why they make whatever decision they make, and that seems to be the important thing. They are the ones allowed to make the decision.

There aren’t many people who enjoy being told what to do. Police officers experience the negative reaction of people who may not be in control of a situation on a daily basis. The interactions with some members of the community which they serve may not consist of a smile and a handshake. It may be quite the opposite. While not ideal, it remains reality. Policing is not a normal job. 

One benefit of exploring an area like this is being able to discover such drastic differences in opinions and standards on the part of the city regarding the residency requirement as it pertains to different employee groups over a relatively short period of time. 

The ability to look back on the city’s arguments regarding residency as well as the ability to see the data from comparable communities through the arbitration decision is helpful. Being able to read about the city dismissing concerns surrounding mandatory residency as being “…without merit” allows the reader to see things from a different angle. 

Hiring and retention will remain problems for New Bedford for the foreseeable future. The conscious decision to limit the amount of potential applicants and employees is clearly questionable. 

Penalizing employees for making a choice to rest their head outside of the city limits does more to harm the city than it does to help the city. Eliminating the ability to choose from applicants and employees has the same effect. 

Incentivizing or encouraging applicants and employees to live in the city is one thing. 

It is another thing entirely for the City of New Bedford to attempt to attract and retain employees, then channel Chazz Palminteri from A Bronx Tale while closing the door behind them saying, 

“Now youse can’t leave.”

The people passing on the job opportunities as well as the employees walking out the door clearly beg to differ.

Read more about the JLMC arbitration decision here:

Check out Arthur Hirsch’s article for The New Bedford Light here:

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