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Louisville has failed to entice more officers to live in the communities they police

Sun setting behind downtown skyline, silhouettes of bridges over a river in the foreground
Almost half of Louisville police officers live outside the city.

A city program that would provide Louisville police officers with a financial incentive to live in the neighborhoods they patrol has gone completely unused more than three years after its creation.

The residency incentive program for Louisville Metro Police Department officers was created as part of the lawsuit settlement between Metro Government and the family of Breonna Taylor in September 2020. Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman, was shot and killed by police earlier that year. In settling the case, the city agreed to a handful of reforms and new initiatives, including a down payment assistance program for officers willing to buy a home in certain areas.

More than three years later, not a single officer has taken advantage of it.

Attorney Sam Aguiar, who represented Taylor’s family in the lawsuit and crafted the reform demands, said he was disappointed to learn from LPM News last month that the residency incentive program had failed.

“I don’t know if that’s a symptom of the city not advertising it or if it's just a situation where there's a culture within the department that they don't want to sleep where they work,” he said.

The goal of proposing the reform, Aguiar said, was to create an environment of mutual respect between police and residents.

“One of the things that we'd heard a lot was from the older crowd that was born and raised here is that policing was a little different back when they grew up,” Aguiar said. “The officers knew them by name. They would see them at their kids’ games. They would see him at the store buying groceries.”

As of January, 44% of Louisville Metro Police officers — 346 out of 773 — did not live in Jefferson County, according to department data.

Rather than give up on the residency incentive, Aguiar said he’d like to see the city rework some of the eligibility criteria and keep it going.

It appears Aguiar may get his wish.

Changing the rules for the down payment assistance program would require buy-in both from city leaders and the River City Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents officers.

Scottie Ellis, a spokesperson for Mayor Craig Greenberg, said the city is planning to review the program and evaluate what kind of changes are needed.

The union is also open to discussion.

In an interview, River City FOP Press Secretary Dave Mutchler acknowledged the program has not been successful. He said he didn’t see a reason why the FOP wouldn’t be willing to engage the Greenberg administration on this issue.

“It's not something so complicated that it can't be adjusted, talked about,” Mutchler said. “Why would we not want to talk about somebody who could potentially benefit not only our officers, but the community?”

What went wrong?

Louisville Metro first rolled out the down payment incentive program in October 2020 as part of the short-term FOP contract.

Officers were offered $5,000 toward the purchase of a home located in areas where at least 51% of residents are considered low- to moderate-income. In Louisville, that includes parts of Shively, Old Louisville, Iroquois and most of the nine neighborhoods that make up the West End.

Those neighborhoods also have significant Black populations. A number of reports, including from the United States Department of Justice, have highlighted the strained relationship between Louisville police and Black residents.

Funding for the residency program was expected to come out of LMPD’s budget surplus, according to Jean Porter, spokesperson for former Mayor Greg Fischer, who left office after 12 years in 2022. Louisville’s new mayor, Craig Greenberg, budgeted $100,000 for the program this fiscal year. The city has never spent money from any source on this incentive.

In order to understand what changes might be needed, it’s important to know why officers haven’t taken advantage of the program.

LPM News asked LMPD what they think went wrong with the initiative, but a spokesperson only said that it's up to individual officers to decide if they want the down payment assistance.

Mutchler said union leaders haven’t spoken with their members specifically about the program. Since no officers have participated, it’s hard to propose improvements, he said.

Mutchler suggested part of the problem could be the restrictive location requirements.

“We have a lot of folks that do not live in Jefferson County,” he said. “To entice them to come back and live in the areas that we police, maybe make that incentive not just the certain Census tracts, but if you come live in Jefferson County, we will offer you this incentive.”

The location requirements were a sticking point between City Council members in Houston, Texas and police officers there in 2015. Talks of an incentive program there stalled out after the Houston Police Officers’ Union withdrew its support.

Ray Hunt, the union’s executive director, said his members initially supported the proposal, which would have given officers $25,000 toward a home purchase over five years.

Like Louisville, the incentive would only have been available for home purchases in neighborhoods officers spent a disproportionate amount of time working in, mostly low- to moderate-income communities. Hunt said that was a nonstarter for officers.

“They don’t want to live there for free, because you can’t raise a family there,” he said. “It is no different than the people who live there now. Most people who live in these high-crime apartments are there because they have to, not because they want to.”

Hunt said some officers also feared that living in areas with a high number of calls for service could turn policing into “a 24/7 job.”

“It would be different if you're talking about a quarter-million-dollar job, but when you're talking about a $60,000 job, people aren't going to do that,” he said.

In nearby Columbus, Ohio, officers can get $10,000 for a home — twice what Louisville is offering.

Columbus’ incentive is also easier to get: An officer only has to purchase a home within city limits, not specific neighborhoods.

Mutchler said Louisville's incentive may not look enticing enough to officers.

“I'm not saying that $5,000 is nothing, obviously, but when you start looking at the housing market, maybe it’s not impactful enough,” Mutchler said.

In recent years, police departments across the U.S. have also created more lucrative hiring and retention incentives to alleviate officer shortages. Louisville Metro currently offers an $8,000 enlistment bonus, as well as a relocation allowance. Neither one is based on officers living in any particular place.

Is the program even worth it?

Policing experts contacted by LPM News were skeptical that a residency incentive program can accomplish the goals reform advocates are seeking.

Sarah Greenman, an associate professor of criminal justice at Hamline University in Minnesota, said there’s very little research on where officers live and if it impacts community-police relationships or misconduct rates.

All of the available studies focus on residency requirements, rather than incentives. Research interviews conducted in the 1980s found officers who lived in the communities they police “seem to have a better feel for the people and the problems of the community.” A more recent study from 1999, however, found residents in cities with residency requirements had a more negative view of police, not a better one.

Greenman said the limited research she’s seen “finds that citizens have worse opinions of officers afterwards.”

Despite the lack of evidence for its benefits, Greenman said incentivizing officers to live in the communities they police has caught on with some lawmakers. President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing even included it as a recommendation in their 2015 report. Louisville participated in that approach, but widespread problems in the police department persist, which is why the city is currently negotiating a consent decree with federal officials.

Greenman speculated the idea may be popular because it’s easier than doing the things research shows are effective, such as procedural justice reforms and initiatives that actually get the community involved in public safety.

“When we do community policing, where you actually go to the community, talk to them about their needs and their goals, and you work on coming up with goals together for community safety, those are more effective,” Greenman said. “It's not an easy, ‘Here's $5,000, go move here.’ It's a long-term, systemic, programmatic change.”

Greenman said that city officials should add a research component as they rework the residency incentive program. She said it's important to make sure promised policing reforms are actually moving the city in a better direction.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.