Harold Mays remembers how life was as a police officer in Huntington Beach when he joined the department in 1944. The town was 2 1/2 square miles with a population of 5,000 and the whole Police Department--seven, counting the chief--lived within the city limits.
The officers shopped in local stores, sent their children to neighborhood schools, attended churches and identified with the charm and understood the problems of the community.
"We knew our neighbors and they knew us," said Mays, 73, now retired and still a city resident. "We took more people home than we put in jail, unless of course it was a felony."
But nowadays, Huntington Beach has 229 officers and only one out of three live in the city they serve. And that percentage is substantially higher than the Orange County average:
* Of the 2,631 sworn officers employed by 22 city police departments, only 18% live in the city where they work, according to a Times Orange County Edition survey.
* Another 26% don't live in Orange County at all.
* Even among police chiefs the 18% county average holds--only four of the 22 chiefs live in their cities, although two more say they are soon to move.
At a time when police departments across the nation are searching for new ways to gain citizen cooperation and support, the residency statistics suggest that fewer Orange County officers have a personal stake in the neighborhoods they are paid to protect.
"I'm surprised at the low numbers," said Arnold Binder, a professor who heads the UC Irvine department of criminology, law and society.
But because Orange County is a collection of cities that are predominantly suburban, Binder explained, "it's less of a bad thing . . . (than) it would be in other areas where there are more differences between cities."
Police officials concede they would like to see more officers live in the cities they patrol, but there are good reasons for the low numbers.
Still, people like Gene Dorney, 46, who lives in an oceanfront home in Newport Beach, said that having a police officer live nearby would bring definite advantages to his neighborhood.
"The more police presence, the less trouble you have because they'd definitely be part of the local network to keep an eye on the neighborhood," Dorney said. "But it doesn't surprise me that so few of them are my neighbors considering what it costs to live here."
Last week, a group of 70 Orange County leaders who were assembled in the wake of the Los Angeles riots delivered a list of recommendations designed to head off that kind of unrest here. Chief among the proposals from the nonprofit Orange County Together was a call for more community policing, which they defined as "a service-oriented, problem-solving partnership between the law enforcement agencies and the community." The group appealed for police to get closer to the neighborhoods they patrol.
While the need for more "community policing" was also a key recommendation made by the Christopher Commission, which investigated the 1991 beating of Rodney G. King by Los Angeles police, both officials and residents say it that does not necessarily mean that officers must live in the communities they patrol.
As long as police are communicating with the people they serve and are keeping crime down, it should not matter where they live, said David Du Tran, whose family owns and operate the Little Saigon Supermarket in Westminster.
"If they live far away but still do a good job, it's still all right," he said. "We shouldn't get picky and require them to live in the city."
Fullerton Police Chief Patrick McKinley said all of his officers are expected to be absolutely committed to the people they are assigned to protect. In Fullerton, where there are 144 officers, 23% live in the city, 40% live elsewhere in Orange County and 37% live outside the county.
"Whether they live there or don't live there shouldn't be a concern. What living where you work does is cut down on the commute time. But as far as the ability to do your job, no, I don't think it makes any difference at all," he said.
Yet, some police officials say departments can gain much by having officers as local residents.
"The biggest disadvantage of not having your officers living here is their lack of community participation," said Irvine Police Chief Charles S. Brobeck. While 80% of his force lives somewhere in Orange County, only 18% live in Irvine. Brobeck resides in nearby Mission Viejo.
"You have officers working odd schedules and are living completely out of the area, so they're less likely to be involved in community events," Brobeck said. "If they have kids, for example, they could get involved in Little League or Pop Warner football. They could go to church here. It all develops a much better relationship with the community."