Public safety comes first. That ought to be the deciding factor to end a standoff that is keeping Atlantic City from hiring more police.

The police force is 12 officers shy of the 330-officer minimum that city and state officials have agreed is necessary. That number was set as part of the city's "clean and safe" strategy.

But filling those vacancies has been delayed because some members of City Council want to hire local residents - even though there are currently no local residents who are eligible.

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The city recently hired 14 new officers and exhausted the list of local eligible candidates. More names cannot be added to the list until a new test is given, which is scheduled for later this month. After the test, it would take about a year for potential new hires to pass background checks and other evaluations and attend the police academy.

Which is why state officials and the city administration - including Police Chief Ernest Jubilee, Public Safety Director Will Glass and Mayor Lorenzo Langford - want to fill the positions now from the so-called Rice list, a list of officers who have been laid off by other N.J. towns. These are trained, experienced officers who could be on the streets in a matter of weeks.

We understand the desire of some members of City Council, led by Councilman George Tibbitt, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, to hire local residents as officers. While it cannot require officers to live in the resort, the city can and does require that police candidates must be living in the city when they are hired.

But this is not the place to make that stand.

The city expects to lose another 15 officers through retirements over the next year. It simply cannot wait a year to fill vacancies. That should be self-evident to everyone. Unfortunately, it is not. Some are even citing recent statistics that show levels of violent crime are down this year as justification to delay hiring more officers.

But those statistics - probably due to a major law-enforcement initiative that disrupted the city's drug gangs - represent a small drop from unacceptable levels. They shouldn't be a reason for anyone to become complacent.

So this is a collision of two worthwhile goals: providing jobs for local residents and providing a safe environment for residents and the visitors the city's economy depends on. Ensuring the safety of residents and visitors during the upcoming year has to take priority.

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