NEW ORLEANS -- New Orleans' long-standing domicile law is one step closer to being temporarily shelved.
The law requires police and other first responders working in Orleans Parish to also live there. On Friday, a City Council committee narrowly approved a proposed ordinance authored by City Council President Jackie Clarkson. The proposal seeks to lift the residency requirement for one year as city leaders evaluate how it would impact recruitment of new officers.
"We'd all love to have all of our policemen live in this city, but we can't make the requirement in this city if it's not affordable. We can't make them uproot their families overnight when children are in school, wives have jobs and grandparents are helping baby sit," Clarkson said. "We can't do that. But we can invite them to join the police force."
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the residency rule was suspended as many police, firefighters and fellow emergency personnel lost their homes and had to seek housing outside of the parish.
Since then, housing prices have gone up while the number of police officers with the New Orleans Police Department steadily went down. Estimates by Police Superintendant Ronal Serpas put NOPD's force level at around 1,200. The chief has said his preferred number would be more than 1,500.
"I feel like we're in a crisis mode at this time," said Councilwoman Susan Guidry, a co-author of the ordinance.
There's little argument about the need for more officers on the street. How to effectively beef up the ranks of NOPD is another matter.
Serpas, along with a host of community groups and police unions, support getting rid of the residency rule. Doing so, they say, will put up fewer hurdles and broaden the pool of applicants.
"We can get the message to them, New Orleans is a great place to live and a great place to work, but we can't say you're going to need to sell your home, you're going to need to pull your children out of school and you're going to need to disrupt your family to work here," Jim Gallagher with the Fraternal Order of Police told the committee.
Councilman James Gray cautioned the committee about reacting too quickly. He voiced concern about how a lifting of the residency rule could hurt local communities, including African Americans.
"I hesitate to change a long-standing rule because of an emergency. These decisions could affect the city 20 years from now," Gray said.
Gray pointed out those attending members of the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation, which has been working closely with NOPD to raise funding for recruitment, didn't reflect the racial makeup of New Orleans.
Responding to that, Sandy Shilstone of the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation responded that they understand they are "pale."
Gray continued, saying the issue goes beyond what an individual looked like. He had strong words to the foundation, saying more effort should be put into recruiting local youth.
In addition to that, Gray advocated that reducing crime isn't just a function of putting more police on the street. He pointed to the city's midnight basketball program as an example.
Returning to the topic of residency, Gray said a recruit developed locally will better understand the unique make up of New Orleans than an "outsider."
"That guy can not be as effective as a person who has a much closer relationship with the community in which he's patrolling," said Gray.
The issue will be for a final vote next week when the full council will convene. Clarkson said she expects resistance.