Police Dept. Turmoil | News Feature | Creative Loafing Charlotte

News & Views » News Feature

Police Dept. Turmoil

Brouhaha over proposal for centralized control of off-duty jobs

A family squabble broke out last week in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department between police chief Darrel Stephens and a number of the department's officers. By Friday, it appeared to have ended with the chief saying uncle -- for now. The brawl centered on how much control the department should have over officers' off-duty security work. Stephens was scheduled to make a presentation to city council Oct. 28 about a new program which would force anyone who employs off-duty officers to go through the department to hire them, rather than contracting directly with the officer as is the current policy.

Under the new program the chief was proposing, an outside payroll service hired by the department would track the hours officers worked, and who employed them, and cut checks to officers for their services. At present, secondary employment reporting is based on an honor system in which the officers are required to report the hours they work off-duty.

Getting any of the top brass in the department to answer our questions about this program after officers called to complain about it was like pulling impacted molars, and took the better part of a week. When CL finally did manage to score a meeting with department higher-ups on this topic -- we were informed early in the week that Stephens wouldn't be available to talk to us -- CMPD Major Maurice Keith and department spokesperson Lee Ratliff insisted the new program was the officers', rather than the chief's, idea.

Whatever the case, here's how it would work: Employers who want to hire officers would have to go through the police department, the department would schedule the officer to work off-duty, and the payroll agency would bill the companies and cut the pay checks, which the city would issue to officers.

At present, according to department policy, the least that secondary employers can pay an officer for security work is $18 an hour. The new program would raise that to $21 an hour.

The payroll service hired to bill the companies and cut checks to the officers would charge companies that employ officers an additional $3 an hour for its services, plus at least $2 more per hour to cover workers compensation insurance and taxes. All together, the secondary employers seeking officers for security work would have to pay an additional $5 per hour for the payroll service, insurance and taxes, raising the cost of employing an off-duty officer to at least $26 an hour. The chief wants to outsource the program so that city taxpayers don't have to pay the cost of monitoring off-duty work, which will instead be passed on to the off-duty employers.

Keith and department spokesperson Ratliff said the program has benefits for the officers, the department, and the public.

"The department's interest is in insuring that we have as much oversight off-duty as (we do with) an officer working on duty," said Keith.

Keith and Ratliff also said it would ensure that officers reported off-duty work to the IRS and would be honest in reporting to the department how many off-duty hours they worked. Department policy prohibits an officer from working more than 75 hours total a week because of concerns that too much off-duty work could impair on-duty performance.

"It's an integrity issue," said Keith.

Keith and Ratliff both say the department hasn't studied whether officers cheat on their taxes, underreport the hours they work off-duty, or conduct themselves improperly off-duty.

"I wouldn't say we've had a problem with it, no," said Ratliff.

So why do it at all? International Brotherhood of Police Officers Co-President Dave Holland and many of the officers he represents say the department's line of reasoning for why the program is needed is insulting."What they are saying is they want a policy change based on a presumption," said Holland. "Their presumption is that officers are doing something crooked, or that we are just stupid."

Last week, officers who felt the same way bombarded the chief with emails and called or wrote city council members asking them not to approve the policy change.

Ratliff and Keith say that many of the officers who are protesting the policy may not understand its benefits or may have incorrect information. One of those benefits, they say, would be guaranteed workers compensation insurance for off-duty officers. A series of North Carolina legal rulings established that officers' on-duty workers compensation insurance, which is paid for by the department, also covers their off-duty security work if they are injured in the process of taking an enforcement action. But Keith and Ratliff say worker's comp insurance wouldn't pay for off-duty accidents that didn't occur during an enforcement action, such as if an officer was injured from slipping on a wet floor.

They say the new program also guarantees all officers fair access to secondary employment since under the current system, officers who hear about jobs may choose to only pass the word on to their friends. The new system would post available jobs with employers approved by the department in a central location where all officers could apply for them.

Keith says the recommendation for the program dates back to April 2000 and came from a work group, which consisted of officers of many different ranks.

But Holland and another officer CL spoke to off the record dispute that.

"I was on that committee and I watched as they altered the minutes and picked and chose what they wanted to hear," said Holland. "They didn't listen to what we were saying. We complained that the minutes weren't reflecting what went on in the meeting."

Holland and other officers CL spoke to see the new program as an unnecessary power grab by the chief.

"If he is trying to do anything, it's to gain control over where off-duty officers work," said Holland.

The planned program also generated other types of concern from officers, none of whom were willing to go on the record for fear they might later be targeted by the department's upper management. Chief among these officers' concerns was that companies would no longer be able to afford to hire extra security and that Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers could be passed over for those jobs because it would be cheaper for companies to hire sheriff's deputies or a private security firm.

While two businesses CL spoke to said they would prefer to hire police officers, the rising cost of doing so might cause them to look elsewhere for security officers.

Representatives of all four of the private security firms CL interviewed -- Stroupe Security Service, Barton Protective Services, Allied Spectaguard and Wackenhut Corporation -- said the average total cost per hour of employing a private security guard in Charlotte ran between $12 and $24 depending on the level of service needed and how long it was needed for. The average cost to companies that signed contracts was $14 to $18 an hour, they said. Sergeant Roger McCoy who oversees secondary employment for the sheriff's office said the minimum rate of pay for off-duty work set by the department was $18.

"Historically we keep our rates the same as CMPD," McCoy said. "That way we don't undercut each other."

After a week of sniping back and forth, Chief Stephens, who was not available to talk to CL on this issue, did find time to send an email across the department alerting everyone to a temporary change of plans. Stephens wrote that the department had received a legal opinion that if the department went ahead with the billing, collection and payroll aspects of the proposed new policy,, pension contributions by off-duty employers might then be required by law. Stephens wrote that he had removed the item which proposed having an outside company handle off-duty payroll from consideration by council, and planned to revise the draft policy to reflect not contracting out for those services.

Police Attorney Mark Newbold said he was unaware of who gave the chief that advice and what it was based upon. CMPD spokesperson Keith Bridges referred CL to the city attorney's office, but multiple calls there were still unanswered at deadline.

Holland said he is concerned that the issue is simply being tabled until the uproar within the police department has died down. Holland isn't the only one who is concerned. Members of the Fraternal Order of Police, another police advocacy group with a large CMPD officer membership, plan to hold a meeting on the issue on Oct. 23. At deadline, Stephens was still unavailable for comment.

Add a comment