Atlanta police Officer Mike Costello is one of those guys that still loves vinyl records.
“This is precious cargo, right here,” he says, pointing to his record collection. It’s moving day for Costello on a Wednesday earlier this spring, and boxes of items are still scattered around his new house – but he already has his records neatly lined up.
A New Jersey native, Costello picks out a Bruce Springsteen record to play while he and his family unpack.
Costello, 28, bought this three-bedroom bungalow in Atlanta’s Edgewood neighborhood in April as part of a new program by the Atlanta Police Foundation to help more officers live within the city limits. As tensions have heightened nationwide between police and the communities they serve, the program in Atlanta – which launched before the most recent demonstrations – aims to include officers as part of those communities.
In Atlanta, less than about 25 percent of police officers live within the city’s limits, said Marlon Trone, vice president of programs at the Atlanta Police Foundation.
“We’re trying desperately to change the culture, change the percentage,” Trone said. “We are actively pursuing officers, engaging them, and making – adding those extra layers of incentives for them to move and relocate.”
Costello said he’d been eyeing living in Edgewood for a while, but that the prices on homes had been too high. In the past five years, he said he’s moved at least five times from places like Conyers to Brookhaven.
“I didn’t really dream of owning a home before I was 30, so I’m very happy about it,” Costello said.
As part of the program, the police foundation helped to renovate the house, which had been previously blighted property, and helped Costello with closing costs. He also receives a $300 stipend a month. In turn, Costello said he has promises to the community he has to keep, like going to neighborhood meetings and doing what are known as “knock and talks.”
“I’ll just be going up to people’s houses, knocking on the door. Hopefully, they’ll want to speak to me. It’s a positive visit. I’m not executing a search warrant or anything like that,” Costello said. “I really just want to get to know them.”
He said he’s looking forward to being part of the close-knit community. But getting more officers to live in the cities they patrol can be challenging, said Ronal Serpa, a former police chief in New Orleans and a professor of criminal justice at Loyola University.
“Many cities and states in the country have prohibited what’s called residency laws, where an employee has to work inside the city limits – and that’s pretty much a bygone area,” Serpas said. “So most officers now in many departments can choose to live wherever they like.”
Police department like APD have to get creative for getting officers to move within city limits. Serpas said it’s good public policy to have different incentives because officers who live in a certain community will have a vested interest.
“Now there’s some disconnect on that in some people’s mind in the nation. One is that ‘Well I’m a police officer – I choose to work there. Where I live has nothing to do with the quality of service I provide.’ That’s an incredibly valid point,” Serpas said. “But it’s also an incredibly valid point that if you do live in the city, you may see things in a slightly different way.”
In Costello’s neighborhood, he’s one of the newer homeowners. Diane Lewis has been living on this street for about 18 years, and said it’s changed for the better. These days, she says she feels safe here, but still welcomes Costello.
“Knowing I could come out my door and if anything’s happening, he’s right across the street, it’ll make me feel safer,” Lewis said.
Costello said he’ll have an open-door policy, and he'll be staying in the community for at least several years.
“I think this program humanizes police a little bit more,” Costello said. "You’re going to see me out here. I’m going to be sweeping the sidewalks, cutting the grass, grilling a steak on my deck.”
Trone, the vice president of programs at the Atlanta Police Foundation, said the foundation plans to expand the program throughout the city, next on the city’s west side near English Avenue, where they’re breaking ground on new houses for officers this summer.