Voters will get to decide if police and fire personnel should be able to live within 50 miles of the city.
The Memphis City Council voted 7-5 Tuesday to not rescind a decision made by the previous council to place the referendum question on the November ballot.
Ahead of the vote, Councilman Jeff Warren, who voted in favor of keeping the question on the ballot, encouraged council members to let the voters decide.
“We’ve heard from the police and fire chief,” Warren said. “There is wisdom in what they’ve said.”
Warren said there is also validity in the concerns from community leaders who are wary about having police officers not living in Memphis police their community. But, Warren said he is ”counting on the police academy to weed people out who don’t need to be here.”
Also voting in favor of the referendum was Councilman J. Ford Canale, who addressed another concern voiced by council members throughout the month-long conversation — how much money would the city lose if the employees in question could live outside of the city?
Canale said that the estimated $7.3 million loss in property tax that would result from all 4,000 public safety employees moving out of the city is much lower than the combined $39.5 million that the police and fire departments estimate spending in overtime this year.
Council Chairwoman Patrice Robinson told officials that the departments and the council need to work together to remove other barriers that stymie recruitment, such as grooming policies. She suggested forming an ad hoc committee led by Councilwoman Jamita Swearengen to come up with recommendations for the departments to remove other barriers.
“Even after we vote on this and allow citizens to vote on it or not have it, we still have that same issue,” Robinson said. “How do we make this a more attractive position in the community?”
The issue of reforming the departments’ grooming policies was first brought up by Councilman Martavious Jones and echoed by Councilman JB Smiley Jr., who said in order to hire more officers, the police department should consider changing it’s grooming requirements related to tattoos and facial hair. He said it’s “something we need to start talking about sooner than later.”
“Our generation makes up a large bulk of the population,” Smiley said. “If we truly want to have new officers willing to serve, it’s almost apparent that we have to make ways for that group of people to feel comfortable.”
To that, Michael Rallings, Memphis Police Department director, told the council that he will “make a deal with you. I’ll allow facial hair and tattoos if you let the voters vote on residency.”
Rallings said the department is currently working on drafting a new grooming policy, but that is it a process.
Rallings also added that the department isn’t “able to pick and choose what we do. I think we need to do all of it,” naming a take-home-car program, the residency requirement, and grooming policies as just a few examples of ways the department can increase recruitment.
After the vote, Swearengen said she will move forward with forming a task force to access other ways to reduce barriers for potential hires.