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Police should live with the people they protect

Sunday, July 08, 2001

The Pittsburgh Fraternal Order of Police intends to file suit this month to give cops the right to live outside the city. Something about the union's argument bothers me.

We have a young force, with more than 500 officers suiting up in the past eight years, and about 130 of those in the past 16 months. Clearly, some of these officers just don't like living among the people who pay their salaries.

They say that some officers' wives have been confronted at their homes by suspects arrested by their husbands. Others say their children were threatened at school.

I assume these thugs were arrested, because if anybody knows how to nail bad guys, it's the police. There are rules against self-assigning a case, but I have to believe that the department would act immediately if a brother or sister officer's family were threatened.

Here's my problem, though. I'm not a cop. I live in the city by choice, because my wife and I believe it's the best place for our family. So what do I do now that I hear that some police don't feel they can protect their own families in one of the safest cities in the United States?

The police have a famously tough job. One of the reasons it's so hard is that average citizens are often reluctant to do the right thing, to help police catch crooks. Citizens don't want to get involved for fear of hassles or worse. Well, with the police union arguing that some of its members need to skedaddle because of the hassles, why would any citizens want to put themselves in harm's way by doing their civic duty? What do we tell them now?

I put this to Gene Grattan, head of the FOP, and he said, "All they have to do is call 911 and we're there."

That's just as true for an officer's family.

Grattan, raised in Greenfield and now a homeowner in Brookline, is not among those heading for the hills. Like the good union leader he is, though, he says, "When the membership speaks, you can't tell them 'no.' "

Grattan kept going back to an alleged constitutional right: Public servants should be able to live where they like. The fact that more than a third of the city's operating budget goes toward the police and fire departments should not enter into that, Grattan believes.

It's easy to see why the union is pushing the notion that a residency requirement jeopardizes women and children. It's only smart to play up the mom-and-apple-pie stuff when you can. Remember how the Teamsters rolled out those newsboys, and lamented the potential loss of an American icon during Pittsburgh's newspaper strike of 1992?

When the strike ended, the Teamsters had a good deal for themselves, and those newsboys were never heard from again. The kids had served their purpose, though. They had provided some great public relations cover in time of need.

The police union's fight for the right to scram comes at an inopportune time for a strapped city. The state Legislature agreed last month to drop the residency requirements for Pittsburgh and Philadelphia teachers because that other big city in Pennsylvania is facing a teacher shortage. So more teachers might move out of Pittsburgh, where two-thirds of the wage tax and the lion's share of real estate taxes go toward city schools.

The only union official on record in favor of keeping a residency requirement for public servants is Joe King, president of Local 1 of the International Association of Firefighters.

"If you work in this city, especially if city taxpayers pay your salary, you should live in this city," King said to the great irritation of city police.

A Pittsburgh residence can be beneficial to the public servants, too, as we saw this past election season. If the firefighters couldn't vote, there's no way they would have gotten the promise of a nice new four-year contract from Mayor Tom Murphy just before the election. Murphy immediately sucked up hundreds of votes from firefighters and their families. That proved the difference in the razor-close mayoral contest.

I hope most cops and teachers choose to stay, too, and help this great city prosper. With the costs of schools and public safety being what they are, we need all the taxpayers we can get.

Brian O'Neill's e-mail address is boneill@post-gazette.com.

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