Paid Protection 

Under a new proposal, police officers could live outside the city but would have to pay to do so.

The town of Tunica doesn't have much turnover on its tiny police force. Of its 10 officers, half of them have been on the job for more than a decade.

But that wasn't always the case. Before the growth of the area's gambling industry, the police department would hire someone; they'd stay a year, then leave.

"We were a training ground," says Chief Richard Veazey. "We couldn't compete with the larger towns and counties."

Better salaries solved Tunica's retension rate, but things in Memphis are a bit more complicated. Since the beginning of the year, City Council members have investigated ways to increase the number of police officers in Memphis.

Last year, the department relaxed the education requirements for applicants. Council members have discussed signing bonuses, a better pension plan, doing away with the residency requirement — approved by public referendum — and allowing officers to live 20 miles from the county line.

Now Councilman Harold Collins has proposed a resolution that would allow officers to live outside the city limits but charges them a $1,200 fee for the privilege.

"If the powers that be really want [more officers] that badly and [the officers] want these jobs, they can provide something in return for their employment," Collins says. "I think it's only fair."

Collins' resistance to the initial residency proposal centered on the tax burden Memphis residents shoulder, especially when compared to residents of unincorporated Shelby County. The fee associated with his proposal is derived from the city's average property tax bill.

"How hard is it to move to Memphis?" Collins asks. "The best idea is for everybody who wants to work for the city to move into the city and then we could be happily ever after. We're a long way from Camelot. This is the next best thing."

If Memphis pays its officers substantially better than those in the surrounding jurisdictions, Collins argues officers can afford the fee. "Let's assume it's a $10,000 difference," Collins says. "Would you pay $1,200?"

Memphis police officers are paid $41,766 during their first year. Their salary increases annually to roughly $49,000 for their third year and beyond.

Officers who work for the DeSoto County sheriff's office begin at $34,157. In the city of Tunica, the base salary for a new officer is about $23,500, but it's been so long since they've hired a new officer that their lowest salary now is about $32,000.

Not that money is everything.

Memphis Police Association president James Sewell says the group is not in favor of Collins' proposal.

"We don't think there should be any restrictions," he says. "We think that officers — and all employees — should be able to live where they want to live."

Though some people wonder if living in the community they police makes for better officers, Sewell doesn't think that matters.

"I live in Memphis. If I call the fire department, I don't care where they live," he says. "I just want them to come quickly and put out the fire."

Memphis has long struggled with a deteriorating urban core: as people move out of the city, the tax base declines, there's less money for basic services, and the quality of those services tends to decline. Sewell suggests that officers don't want to live in the city for the same reason other people don't want to: the crime.

"We think crime is the number-one issue in Memphis. If you reduce crime, people will start moving back to Memphis," he says. "Gas is too expensive to live far away."

With an argument that circular, maybe Collins' compromise is as good as it's going to get. The City Council is certainly no Round Table, but this way they'll get their knights, er, officers and at least a small amount of city money will make it back to the city coffers.

The City Council is scheduled to talk about Collins' idea June 3rd, and public safety and homeland security committee head Reid Hedgepeth is open to the idea:

"If we are truly worried about the economic impact, I do not believe that $1,200 is going to stop an officer from coming to work," he said. "We owe it to our citizens to provide officers to protect them."

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