Using city equipment off-duty: is police moonlighting a good deal for all?

In the wake of layoffs, one councilmember wants Minneapolis to take over off-duty work -- to pay for more on-duty officers

Would a city employee in the public works department be allowed to take a city dump truck home at night to do private contracting work on the side for personal gain? The answer on most city residents' lips would be "no."

So why then should individual Minneapolis police officers have free access to police squad cars and resources to sell to private companies in order to earn extra money for themselves moonlighting?

City Councilmember Dean Zimmermann (6th Ward) has raised that issue at several Council meetings and wants a public hearing about whether the city should broker private police contracts. Such an effort, he says, might produce city revenue and save jobs after recent police budget cuts that reduced ranks 15 percent.

"If a private corporation has specific police needs, then maybe the city should offer it to them on a contractual basis instead of individuals doing it by themselves for a fee," said Zimmermann. "You have to question having this whole system done privately but with city resources. I am willing to be convinced otherwise if someone is willing to do that. I'm not sure it passes the smell test."

Police insiders estimate that more than 75 percent of officers do off-duty work. They moonlight with police uniforms and often even take a city squad car to their off-duty job. Based on the number of officers and a rate that ranges from $25 to $55 an hour, moonlighting is a multi-million-dollar business.

Rates are negotiated individually; union agreements do not apply because it is a voluntary assignment. Businesses get a uniformed officer with city authority who also happens to have a gun, handcuffs, a nightstick and mace in his or her tool belt.

City residents and employers get more cops out on the street -- or at least in private storefronts.

"When people see cops standing in the middle of the block helping people get out of parking ramps they might think, 'what did this guy do to get such a crummy job? He must be low on the totem pole.' But actually he is moonlighting," said Officer Ron Reier. "He's being paid by the ramp."

Reier, a police spokesman who has worked off-duty, added, "The city is making out on this deal because people are seeing Minneapolis police officers at work and the taxpayers aren't paying the bill. Police visibility is a deterrent to crime."

Department rules

The department regulates outside employment and states that an employee's primary duty, obligation and responsibility is always to the Minneapolis Police Department.

Police policies include:

  • Those working off-duty must receive prior approval through an application process before any employment commences;

  • Off-duty officers are subject to the same rules, regulations and standards as on-duty officers;

  • They cannot work for another law-enforcement agency, or the sex industry, or where an off-duty engagement constitutes a conflict of interest with the officer’s duties;

  • They must wear the official blue uniform;

  • They must wear the uniform while in possession of a squad car and receive an on-duty supervisor's permission to use it;

  • An officer's commander must be notified if the officer works more than 64 hours per week (including on-duty time);

  • No one can work outside of city limits;

  • All off-duty officers must have a portable radio and stay in contact with the appropriate dispatch channel;

  • Consuming alcohol while employed off-duty is prohibited;

  • Off-duty officers cannot work for establishments that primarily serve alcohol.

    Many of the rules were developed after a well-publicized lawsuit against Lt. Mike Sauro, who was accused of beating up a downtown bar-goer while working off duty. The court said the city was responsible, even though Sauro was working for a private business, costing taxpayers millions of dollars. As a result, off-duty cops can't work in bars and liquor establishments.

    Despite the regulations, the department has no definitive records of how many cops moonlight each month, how much they earn or how many hours a month they work, Reier said. It is a private, guarded matter between the cops and the business owners who pay the cops directly.

    Businesses benefit

    At the SuperAmerica convenience store at West Grant Street and LaSalle Avenue, different officers work three or four nights a week. The shift usually starts at 8 p.m. and often goes until 3 a.m. The store's late-night hours make it a popular spot for possibly intoxicated people headed out of downtown on their way home after the bars close.

    "It is a big relief to have a cop there late at night," said the store's manager, Jenan (who did not give her last name). "They stick around the store and make everybody feel safer."

    Inspector Rob Allen of the 1st Precinct was in charge of a post-Sauro 1995 study that examined whether the city should take over off-duty employment. The study looked at several cities around the country to see how others handled the issue.

    Allen found that more cities allow off-duty work to get cops on the street that taxpayers don't pay for. In downtown, Allen estimates, there are sometimes 30-40 extra officers working on somebody else's nickel. As a supervisor he can have them leave their off-duty work with one phone call if an emergency arises.

    Could the city take on the off-duty issue and make money for police department coffers?

    "No," said Allen, "and it's because of specific rules of the Minnesota state pension system. My information is eight years old, but any money that an officer makes in the course of his employment would then have an impact on his pension, and I am not sure that condition has changed. The city payment to the pension fund would increase dramatically. Once Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton and the City Council realized this fact they lost interest in the plan."

    Allen estimated that the city would have to charge $50 an hour just to break even after hiring the people necessary to manage and schedule off-duty employment.

    If the City Council considers the idea it will begin in the Council's Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee, which is chaired by Councilmember Dan Niziolek (10th Ward).

    "This is a conversation we need to have," said Niziolek. "My reservation is this -- if we become a contractor of private security, then we will be exploring a very gray area. If we provide a basic level of public safety as well as providing part-time security, where do the two come together? Will people be paying for a level of services that they should be getting from government anyway?"

    Niziolek conceded that off-duty officers using city resources might be worthwhile because the city gets an added level of protection.

    Zimmermann, however, thinks the issue should be re-examined to perhaps bring cops back from the first layoffs in more than a decade.

    "I think that the public interest would be better served by us deciding what kind of police services we will provide and how we do it," said Zimmermann. "By getting it under control we might be able to hire more cops to insure the police service that we need."