How Much Is That Copper In The Window?

The reason why cops are allowed to moonlight is simple: it’s a job perk going back to the days when police, like most public employees, were underpaid relative to those in the private sector, and allowed to make some extra money on the side. The same was true for 20 and out pensions, another gimme to compensate for lower current wages that kicked the cost down the road enough for current politicians to proclaim what a great job they were doing saving the taxpayers’ money. It was more palatable than paying them adequately in the first place, or paying them today rather than later.

But then, for many cops, most notably those in cities who enjoy strong unions, those days aren’t even a memory. Pay is comparable to, if not better, than what they could make in the private sector, and a full pension at 42 years of age is the perfect launching platform for the second half of their productive life. Yet, the perk remains.

It’s been a target here for years, Wearing the uniform we bought them, carrying the gun we bought them, and with the power of the badge we pinned on their very proud chest, cops get to sell themselves after hours to the highest bidder. Some get to drive their police cruiser to their rent-a-cop job. All get to be an authorized law enforcement officer for whomever slips them an envelope full of cash at the end of the shift.

Seth Stoughton, once a cop and now a prawf at the South Carolina law school, has decided to spill the beans on cop moonlighting.

Every day, law enforcement officers across the country don their uniforms, strap on their gun belts, and head to work. They carry the equipment and weapons that they have been issued, and they bear the badges that symbolize their authority, but they are not all reporting to the government agency that employs them. Instead, many are “moonlighting.” From directing traffic at a busy church parking lot to making arrests at a packed nightclub to using deadly force, uniformed off-duty officers exercise the full panoply of police powers while working for private employers.

The private employment of off-duty officers blurs the line between private and public policing, raising questions about accountability, officer decision-making, police/community relationships, and the role that police agencies play in modern society. Thus far, however, the employment of off-duty officers by private companies has almost entirely evaded the attention of legal scholars.

What makes this most remarkable is that it’s been in our faces forever, yet few people have given it a second thought.  That cop directing traffic at a private event?  That cop at the door of the hot nightclub?  We take it for granted that it’s just what cops do. Some don’t even realize that they’re moonlighting, as they’re in full uniform as if they’re just doing their job, the one they get paid to do by the public. Oh no. That’s not what they’re doing at all.

The beauty of it all is that they’re still cops, on duty or off. They still get to carry and use the gun. They still get to make arrests. They still get to give commands and beat you if you “resist.” Because a cop is a cop 24/7, regardless of who stuff cash in his pocket.

Leon Neyfakh cuts to the chase in an interview with Seth.

Before I read your paper, I had no idea that police officers were allowed to do off-duty work for private employers while wearing their uniforms and carrying their service weapons. And I had no idea that, as you report in the paper, some agencies require officers to wear their uniforms while working off-duty for private employers.

Where do you live?

New York.

Oh, yeah—New York does it.

It just strikes me as crazy, though I’m not sure I can totally explain why.

Because it is crazy. Seth gives a scholarly response to Leon, that it’s counterintuitive and incongruous to people who understand the existence of police to serve the public good. The trench lawyer explanation is not as generous. Strip a cop of the accoutrements of his position, the authority to command and the latitude to do everything wrong and still get away with it, and nobody would pay him.  Without the shield, the off-duty cop is just another jerk who thinks he gets to tell people what to do.

But let him, if not require him, to wear his publicly-paid duds, carry a gun with his publicly-paid bullets and wield the badge on behalf of a private employer, and suddenly he’s a valuable commodity. People have to obey his commands, as instructed by his private overlord, because of his public authoritah. When the pastor says make people turn left at the parking lot, the police officer can beat some old church lady who makes a right turn and “resists.” Who else could do that?

Does it turn private commands into the equivalent of public law? You bet it does.  Law is no more than what is enforced by governmental fiat, the forceful hand of the police. If the cops enforce the dictates of the guy who hands them the cash-filled envelope, then it’s just as much the law as anything Congress enacts, at least as far as the church lady is concerned.

And when there’s an issue, the cop who beat the church lady and got caught on video screaming “stop resisting” when she did nothing more than make a wrong turn, who is liable for this cop’s abuse? That’s an interesting question.

From your paper it also sounds like there aren’t rules or even conventions for who is held responsible when an off-duty police officer working a private gig does something to get sued.

There’s a tremendous amount of variation and very little consistency here. Some states put the liability for an off-duty officer’s actions squarely on the private employer. Other states tend to suggest the opposite approach—they say the private employer is not liable. As a matter of policy some departments have private employers sign indemnity agreements with the agency before the officer is allowed to work with them. So even though the employment contract is only between the private employer and the officer, in order to approve the off-duty employment, the agency wants to be indemnified so if the officer does get sued, the private employer will pick up the tab.

Some do. Some don’t. Some have policies. Who goes to the pastor to make sure the indemnity agreement has been properly executed before the cop gets his cut of the donation plate?

19 thoughts on “How Much Is That Copper In The Window?

  1. Greg Prickett

    Two issues. First, pay. If you are going to want to eliminate off-duty jobs for police, you are going to need to do several things. Pay will have to be raised for most departments. This is not talking about the large departments, but the smaller departments that pay officers a fraction of what a NYC, a Chicago, or a Los Angeles pay their officers. Most small departments, departments with fewer than 10 officers, are low paying and officers have to supplement their income in order to survive. Since you get what you pay for, you’ll have to convince the citizenry to pay more, which they are typically reluctant to do.

    Next, there are some things that you are going to have to use officers for, such as directing traffic. You change how that is handled by requiring the group needing traffic control, such as the megachurch on Sundays, to pay the police department, and the PD would then assign an officer on overtime to handle the job.

    Finally, the pension idea is not 20 and out for the reason you think. Do you really want 60 and 65 year old police officers answering your call for help when someone is trying to break in your house? Or beat you? Police work is a young man’s profession, just as the military is (but for different reasons). It’s different from law, where you want the 60-year-old lawyer who has over 30 years of experience.

    1. SHG Post author

      I was hoping to hear from you. So let’s go down the line:

      1. Would we need to increase pay? The necessary rate of compensation is what’s required to obtain a sufficient number of qualified employees. Maybe you’re right, and nobody would apply for a cop job at the current compensation, but I doubt it. They’re deluged with applicants now, and they would still be without moonlighting. Maybe we should test the theory?

      2. If private entities have special policing needs, they can obtain the services by paying the police department directly, which then dispatches officers (overtime or otherwise) to fulfill those special needs to the extent they serve the public interest while remaining under the supervision and control of their department. Directing megachurch traffic is a good example. Being a bouncer in a strip club, on the other hand, is not.

      3. It’s true we don’t want 65-year-olds chasing down gangbangers, but they could do a great job on a desk. Not everybody walks a beat. There is plenty of work to be done which doesn’t require youth, vigor or physical ability (see the bellies on NYC cops lately?).

      1. Marc not-R

        SHG, the problem with #2 is that while solving the private policing issue, you open up another, but different can of worms for the agency in deciding who gets the OT, leading to issues of favoritism, nepotism and fairness issues that tend to be present in public employment. Having been there on the FD side, I’m not sure many agencies want that additional headache on top of the current issues with OT. That also becomes an issue in pensions – does that affect the final pension for officers as they are often determined on some subset of the highest payroll periods, not just highest base pay. And at least in Texas, I don’t think licensed peace officers can work side jobs at strip clubs, and definitely not in uniform.

        And very few (myself and Greg excluded) tend to retire at 20. I know of cases (again, on the fire side) of guys (not many women have reached this point yet) working to 70 on the job and most put 30 in because the pension generally does get larger with more years (mine would have topped at 30 years, for example).

        1. SHG Post author

          The favoritism issue exists whenever OT gets doled out, so while I agree that it’s an issue, it’s an issue in general, not specific to the private policing problem. As for 20 and out, that differs by individual, job and place. Some places, 20 and out is the norm. Others, not so much. But we can’t address every conceivable permutation, and even if it’s 30 and out, same deal 10 years later.

  2. Christopher Best

    Sorry for the offtopic comment, but since I now see two different authors in this thread: Did something happen to Fault Lines? I haven’t seen an update there in a week… What am I missing?

    1. SHG Post author

      FL is on vacation this week and will be back on September 6th. They work hard and earned some time to recharge. As for the “two different authors,” David is also my SJ editor. He saves me from looking like a total moron.

      1. Christopher Best

        Sorry, I meant to say “two different Fault Lines authors”…

        They certainly deserved a break! I was hoping it was just a Summer Vacation, but the lack of any notice saying that was the case had me worried Mom and Dad were fighting… Looking forward to the return.

        1. SHG Post author

          Now you make me curious, as I have no idea what you’re referring with “two different Fault Lines authors.” And I announced it a few times on the twitters, but I guess I should have put up a sticky at FL as well.

          1. Christopher Best

            Errr… The first comment is from Greg Prickett, who I assume is the same Greg Prickett I read every week at Fault Lines…

            1. SHG Post author

              Well, Greg is the same Greg, but we still let him comment here. In fact, all FL writers are welcome to comment here*.

              *Terms and conditions apply.

          2. Christopher Best

            Also I made the mistake of following Ken White on twitter and now my feed is entirely filled with his self flagellation and hating on cargo shorts, so I probably missed your vacation announcement, sorry.

  3. Tom H

    This explains the BMW I see parked in the middle of the road blocking a lane in front of the church on Sunday’s with blue and red flashing lights in the back window. I had thought the Southlake, TX. Police were just showing off some asset seizure booty. I guess you can equip your personal car with police lights here.

    I missed my FL fix, I’ll be happy to have them back next week. Enjoy the holiday.

  4. maz

    ‘[T]he police officer can beat some old church lady who makes a right turn and “resists.” Who else could do that?’

    I’d be willing to give it a try — but I’d like to see a recent photo of the old lady in question first.

  5. Rr

    My favorite example of corporate policing are railroad cops. Are there any other businesses (exculding few private universities) that get to have their own police force? While railroad police were certainly necessary before wireless communication we have never removed their police powers.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’m not certain of the history of railroad police, but suspect it stems from the old strikebreaker days. While it’s a different issue than here, it is rather incredible that a private company gets to own its own force with police powers.

      1. not an anon

        Part of the deal with the RR police was an interstate commerce problem — back when they were first created, there weren’t enough Federal Marshals (as that was it back then for federal LEAs) to deal with the vast territories the railroads covered, nor could state and local agencies reasonably deal with the problems the railroads faced — so the railroads hired folks (at first agencies like Pinkerton’s, then their own folks) to fill the gap. (The strikebreaking came a little later with the formation of BLET and such, but those bad old days are well behind us, thank gosh!)

        As to why they still exist today? Most of it, at least as far as I can tell from working for a RR, is that a) they still perform useful functions such as dealing with trespassers and vandals (as signal system vandalism was and still sometimes is a train-wreckingly nasty thing), as well as lots of education work (both to other LEAs and in some cases, as part of public programs as well) and a variety of miscellaneous functions, and b) they’re “out of sight, out of mind” to most folks.

    2. Lee Keller King

      There are (at least in Texas) other organizations that have their own commissioned officers. Usually, the work is specialized and of state-wide application.

      Off the top of my head, I can think of:

      1. Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association Special Rangers (Texas Rangers, that is)
      2. National Insurance Crime Bureau (a merger of the National Auto Theft Bureau and the Insurance Crime Prevention Institute)

      However, for what its worth, both are nonprofit organizations.

  6. Rich Lawrence

    Interesting arguments pro and con for off duty details.
    In entertainment districts bar owners individually or as
    a group pay for officers – usually Fri & Sat & special events.

    On the one side they are the ones inviting people to gather
    and drink and they’re making money from it. If they create the
    need for police why shouldn’t they pay for it?

    But the other side – only those who can afford it get police protection?

    And definitely, absolutely, you want it administered by the dept.
    I have seen on the news detail operations run like they were someones mafia fiefdom – the guy arranging the details was making money in his sleep – he took a cut of everyone’s pay until the city was embarrassed enough to take control. But Google Scott Rothstein & Fort Lauderdale PD to see how even dept. run details can get out of control.

    They do offer a way for the dept to regulate off duty hours but every city and every agency run things differently. Go after their extra money and they will take it personally.

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