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It’s a typical day in downtown Salt Lake City for Chief Deputy Fred Ross. He’s patrolling one of the most dangerous parts of the city. It’s a neighborhood in transition as new construction and businesses clash with the homeless population.
As a result, many local businesses hire off-duty police officers, complete with squad car, gun and uniform.
“Most of them realize there’s only so many police officers in the city,” said Ross. “If they want a constant presence, then they’re having to take that on themselves … whether it’s an off-duty officer or security. More often than not, they tend to hire police.”
For $30 an hour, a business in Salt Lake City can hire an officer in uniform. Local business owner Kasandra Verbrugghen has an officer stand guard several days a week. “I’d love to see the city step up and pay for what we’re having to pay, but you know, that hasn’t happened,” she said.
Around the country, businesses and private citizens can hire an off-duty cop for an hourly rate, with uniform, squad car and gun. Police departments say it’s a good way to get more cops on the street without dipping into other parts of city budgets or raising taxes. But critics say it leaves room for a lot of room for error.
“One thing people don’t realize is that in the United States, we have 18,000 or so local and state police agencies,” said Stephen Rushin, an assistant professor of law for the University of Illinois. “Most of these police agencies are largely unregulated. They’re allowed to make their own internal policy.”
Policy that can lead to corruption. In 2011 the Department of Justice issued a scathing report calling the New Orleans Police Department’s paid detail system “an aorta of corruption.” In 2013, Pittsburgh fired its police chief after a local newspaper reported that he ran a private security business on the side and hired officers to work it, which was considered a conflict of interest. “An investigation later found the police chief was misdirecting funds that were paid for off-duty officer work,” said Steven Topriani, who led an independent investigation into the Pittsburgh Police Department.
The Salt Lake City Police Department has a strict policy in place that mandates all vendors go through a coordinator hired by the department. Every business is vetted before an officer can be hired. Businesses like Goldman Sachs, local fast food chains and gas stations and private citizens for weddings and funerals hire local off-duty police.
Private security firms in the area take issue with this. They say they’re competing with a government entity.
“I want to maintain a good relationship with them. They’re great partners,” said Paul Nelson, the president of Bedrock Protection Agency. “But the fact is, they’re competitors, and they shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t be allowed.”
Nelson says the Salt Lake City Police Department has an unfair advantage. “They’re at all crime scenes, so whenever the question comes up, ‘Hey, officer, who should I use for security?’ and they’ll say, ‘Call this lady at the department. She’ll hook you up with some off-duty officers.’ The referral to private security is never made. They’re grabbing that business, and that’s not their business. They’re in law enforcement, not private security.”
However, Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank doesn’t see it that way. “We’re not in the business of doing private security. We’re in the business of doing law enforcement,” he said. “It’s a very fine line, I’ll give you that … but the difference is that you are hiring a police officer to take actions based on the color of authority, based on the law, not ‘Do you have tickets to the event tonight? Can I search your bag?’ or any of that kind of stuff. That should not be law enforcement because that falls under search and seizure and everything else. That should be private security.”
Security firms say the off-duty officers have the advantage in other ways: Taxpayers cover the officers’ overhead and paid for their equipment.
“Most of these police agencies are largely unregulated. They’re allowed to make their own internal policy.”
Assistant Law Professor, University of Illinois
“Nobody’s stopping to realize that ‘Wait a minute, the public bought that equipment. That’s public money that’s paid for that,’” said Perry Rose, the president of Pride Investigations. “You can’t go rent out public things, public-owned stuff. That’s just direct competition against the private entities out here trying to make money and trying to make a living,” he said.
Salt Lake City charges a $6 for every off-duty shift worked to essentially repay taxpayers for gas used during off-duty work. However, the fee is relatively low compared with those of many other departments around the country, which charge $2 to $7 per hour for use of equipment.
Nationwide, police departments vary considerably on how much they charge to hire a uniformed officer. In Detroit it costs $25, whereas in Las Vegas it’s $67 an hour. Because there is no national policy, it’s left to the department and sometimes city council to set the standards.
Departments also generally put limits on the number off-duty hours an officer may work. But that’s not the case in Salt Lake City. Burbank says he looks at the performance of each officer to determine limits, not a general policy.
“We track how many hours they work, and so I can go and pull up an officer and say, ‘This is how many hours they’ve been working,’” he said. “Especially if it becomes an issue. And so that’s partly why we have the oversight that we do within the department.”
However, when Al Jazeera America requested the total amount of off-duty hours that officers worked in 2014, the department was unable to tell us. The reason: Officers are paid directly by their employer. Pay doesn’t go through the department first, as it does in many cities. A representative for the department told Al Jazeera America if there was an issue, the department could perform an audit to get that information. Some say the lack of consistent oversight could be problematic.
“Being paid by the employer can raise some concerns,” said Rushin. “There’s a couple of documented cases in Pittsburgh and New Orleans where the ability of police officers to receive compensation directly through a private employer, as opposed to through the police department, can create the opportunity for corruption, where the officer might not pay adequate taxes, the hours might not be documented and it may be more difficult for the police department to regulate how they’re getting paid and when they’re getting paid.”
Salt Lake City’s treasurer reported a profit of $84,708 in fiscal 2014 from the $6 equipment fee collected by the police department.
Each shift was for a minimum of four hours, which conservatively puts total hours worked at 56,472. Salt Lake City officers make $30 an hour for off-duty work, which means they made about $1.69 million in 2014.
Because training for security officers varies greatly by company, law enforcement in Salt Lake City and elsewhere say there are a lot of advantages to hiring a cop in uniform versus a security guard. A cop in uniform can make arrests and generally act like a cop, which provides more of a deterrent.
But a major cause for concern is liability. “If an officer engages in an unlawful use of force, that person whose rights have been violated can sue the officer, the police department and the city that employs that officer,” said Rushin. “The city and taxpayers are potentially on the hook for any of the costs associated with that.”
Nationwide, police departments vary on how they handle liability while moonlighting. Newark requires a vendor to have at least a million dollars in liability insurance. In Philadelphia it’s not even called off-duty work. It’s called overtime, and all the liability falls on the city. In a rare instance, Alabama passed a statewide code mandating each vendor have $100,000 in liability before hiring an off-duty cop. Salt Lake City handles its liability like many departments in the country. It asks vendors to sign a waiver that the is business liable — to a point.
“It’s specifically outlined that they take on the workers’ comp and everything if our officers are injured,” said Burbank. “So there is some liability that comes with employing a police officer. Now, when they have to take police action, then it’s my responsibility, whether on duty, off duty or any other time.”
“It concerns me when I hear of one [security] agency here in the state of Utah. And they take in millions of dollars in security work, and the only people working it are off-duty officers."
Police Chief, Salt Lake City
Burbank says that when an off-duty officer takes police action while working for a business, liability is handled on a case by case basis. This is how every police department in the country handles the issue of liability by off-duty uniformed police officers. As a result, there have been hundreds of lawsuits around the nation, going back decades, that have attempted to determine where that liability begins and ends.
“The liability exposure to a local municipality is enormous,” said Topriani. “Anything from injury claims, workers comp claims, civil rights lawsuits and judgments that follow those can be devastating to the taxpayers.”
It’s one reason Heber City, a suburb of Salt Lake City, wrote a radical policy on hiring off-duty police officers in uniform.
“It’s pretty extensive,” said Xayla Thomas, the public information officer for the Heber City Police Department. “They cannot wear a uniform, anything with a Heber City logo or badge and equipment or any of the vehicles.”
The strict policy change had some big implications for the small town. Jim Moore, the sergeant for investigations there, owns a private security company on the side. Under the new policy, he can’t act under the color of law while working as a security officer.
“I have to stay within the confines and the restrictions of a security officer … and our policy would state that if you’re off duty and you witness a criminal act, you are to call and have an on-duty officer come and handle that criminal act,” he said.
“That sounds like a carefully crafted attempt to avoid liability,” said Rushin. “But the bigger question is whether or not we want a public police officer to have to go through these kinds of hurdles while enforcing the law, trying to fight back against law breaking they see in front of them.”
Perry Rose is a former police officer who now runs the security agency Pride Investigations. He instigated the reforms for hiring police in Heber City not only because of liability but also because he was losing security jobs to the police department.
“It all comes down to the almighty dollar anymore,” he said. “And I hate to say that, but that’s kind of what it is. We have to have liability insurance … [Heber City police] don’t have to have a security company insurance.”
Rose is focused on not just Heber City. He worked on legislation with Utah state Sen. Margaret Dayton to create more transparency regarding off-duty police work. The bill has yet to pass. And he takes issue with Burbank.
“It concerns me when I hear of one agency here in the state of Utah,” he said. “And they take in millions of dollars in security work, and the only people working it are off-duty officers. Chief Burbank’s that person. His agency’s doing it.”
But Burbank sees nothing wrong with his policies on moonlighting, which are generally on par with other national police departments.
“To be honest with you,” said Burbank, “I would do away with part-time work, hire more police officers and pay them better money so they don’t have to work part time.”