Is police moonlighting a good deal for all?

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April 21, 2003 // UPDATED 10:47 am - April 30, 2007
By: Bob Gilbert
Bob Gilbert

Should cops use police equipment to make off-duty cash? One councilmember wants to ask.

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 from most residents' would be "no."

So why then should Minneapolis police officers have free access to police squad cars and resources to sell to private businesses to earn extra money moonlighting?

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 cuts that reduced police 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."

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.

Residents and employers get more cops 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.

Off-duty officers must receive written permission to do off-duty work, and are bound by the same regulations as when on-duty.

The cannot work for bars or strip clubs, and cannot consume alcohol. They must wear their uniform when working off-duty, and whenever they use a squad car.

They must work no more than 64 hours a week, on- and off-duty.

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, 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.

"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."

First Precinct Inspector Rob Allen was in charge of a post-Sauro 1995 study that examined if the city should take over off-duty work. The study looked at how several cities around the country handled the issue.

Allen found that more cities allow off-duty work to get cops on the street that taxpayers don't pay for. Allen estimates, there are sometimes 30-40 extra officers working Downtown that someone else pays for, but he can bring in with one phone call.

Could the city make money for the police budget if it took over off-duty work?

"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 Council considers the idea, it will begin in the Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee, 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?"