Council creates ethics exemption for off-duty cops

Minneapolis has had a tradition of allowing police officers to work off-duty with city-owned squad cars and radios, but for the past few months, moonlighting cops have violated a new city ethics code.

The City Council unanimously passed the ethics ordinance in March, which said that employees shall "not use city facilities or equipment to solicit or perform outside work."

On July 25, the City Council voted 8-3 to create an exemption for police. Councilmembers Paul Zerby (2nd Ward), Don Samuels (3rd Ward) and Natalie Johnson Lee (5th Ward) voted no.

Councilmember Scott Benson (11th Ward) authored the measure and called it a housekeeping amendment, allowing officers to work as they had in the past.

His district includes two Windom motels that hire off-duty officers, Benson said. The use of official police vehicles deterred prostitution and drug dealing.

"What convinced me: they get hired by neighborhoods off-duty to do bike patrols," Benson said. "We're saying they can't have their radios? It made no sense to me."

Zerby said the Council should have broader discussion before it voted to change policy -- and could fine-tune the policy so the city benefits from the private use of its equipment. Currently, private groups pay off-duty police officers, but not the city.

Councilmember Don Samuels (3rd Ward) compared off-duty officers' use of city equipment to a form of licensing -- suggesting the city could charge a fee for the use of the Minneapolis Police Department brand name.

"The customer is paying for a label," he said. "There is an added value for having the label. The city could attach a fee for that."

Councilmember Dan Niziolek (10th Ward), chair of the Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee, said he was open to discussing the issue with his committee, but he would not initiate it.

Private payments, in effect, put more officers on the street, and police policy dictates that they respond to public calls if the need arises. "Let's not forget the benefits we get as a city," Niziolek said.