Does it pay for police officers to moonlight?

Concerns mount as more cops spend off-duty hours working for private firms.

Wearing serious expressions and dark shades, the men strolling through Tucson's annual Fourth Avenue Street Fair certainly look like regular cops, right down to their crisp blue uniforms and shiny badges. In fact they are, in every way but one: They aren't on the city's clock.

Like colleagues across the country, these officers are moonlighting as security guards.

To the officers, it means extra money: Tucson cops earn more than $2 million collectively from their off-duty work.

To the community, it means increased security presence at no extra cost, since private employers pick up the tab. But some law-enforcement experts say these benefits carry a hidden price tag: The side jobs can wear out work-hungry officers, open doors to conflicts of interest or corruption, and expose police departments to legal liability.

For many departments, the answer lies, for now, in developing detailed guidelines for their officers. But some are backing away from the practice, particularly after facing lawsuits related to off-duty officers.

"They carry their guns and have all their [police] authority.... But they're acting on behalf of a private employer," says James Fyfe, a criminologist and former police officer at Temple University in Philadelphia. "That places them in a very gray zone."

If, for example, an off-duty officer sees his employer commit a crime, making an arrest could threaten his secondary career.

"Certainly the potential for misguided loyalty exists," says Steve Rothlein, a Miami-Dade County police official who teaches classes on off-duty legal issues for the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). But he says conflicts of interest can be prevented with proper oversight.

The liability issue, however, has already hit home for some police departments.

In one case last year, an off-duty officer in Mantoloking, N.J., severely fractured a bar patron's arm, prompting a lawsuit that the borough lost. "Our position was that the officer wasn't representing the department," says borough attorney Edwin O'Malley. Now the local government is seeking to halt part-time security work by police officers.

Despite the inherent challenges, many police officers say the private employment benefits the community as well as their own paychecks.

"When we're off duty, it actually helps us make connections with the community," says Claude Ralls, a Tucson police captain working at the local street fair. "We have time to talk to people and get to know them. And they get comfortable talking to us. It's a win-win situation."

From a taxpayer's view, some experts say, it's like having extra police officers inside banks, theaters, and other public spaces without having to foot the bill.

Across the country, city policies on regulating off-duty work for cops vary widely: Chicago takes a hands-off approach, other than a ban on working in bars and liquor stores.

Tucson and Miami-Dade closely monitor outside work, screening employers, issuing contracts, and setting pay scales.

The tight control "benefits the officers as well as the department," says Sgt. John Roper, a 30-year Miami-Dade veteran who does off-duty jobs.

The need for scrutiny is obvious, says Mr. Rothlein. "For example, are you going to allow your officers to work in a pornography store? You have to think about the community."

One example of what can go wrong without oversight is the 1997 case of rapper Christopher Wallace, who was gunned down in Los Angeles while under the protection of off-duty Inglewood officers.

According to Lt. Alex Perez of the Inglewood Police Department, six full-time officers and one reserve officer were given punishments ranging from suspension without pay to written reprimands. "Our policy requires that officers need prior approval for off-duty work," he says. "And these officers did not do that."

Many departments base their off-duty programs on IACP guidelines, which call for the kind of "contract system" used in Tucson and Miami-Dade. These include limiting off-duty security work to activities like traffic and crowd control, where the potential for compromising situations is minimal. They also recommend limiting officers to 24 hours of off-duty work per week to prevent fatigue.

And many require off-duty employers to carry substantial liability insurance to shield taxpayers.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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