From high school football sidelines to events, like the Greater Gulf State Fair, uniformed police officers can often be seen keeping order around town, but in many cases, these men and women in blue are not working on the city’s dime but as private security guards.
For decades, the Mobile Police Department has allowed officers, through either contractual or handshake deals, to work extra jobs as security guards to help them make extra money and support their families. While the practice isn’t unique to the Port City, owners of private security firms say it is putting a dent in their business and should concern taxpayers.
Danny Parker, owner of Shield Protection Services and Security, said the number of police officers moonlighting as private security officers negatively impacts his firm. He said the local private security industry is competitive enough without police officers being added to the mix.
“The economy was already tough, but this makes it much harder,” Parker said. “Security is the red-headed step-child. It is the first to go when a company cuts costs. It gets either cut down or cut out completely.”
A main concern for Parker is police officers can use city-owned cars and uniforms, while working these private security details. He said the use of these items helps the officers secure jobs that otherwise could go to his company, or others.
“They take a lot of the jobs we have because they can use police uniforms and police cars,” Parker said. “They use taxpayer gas to make money. They get jobs because they are affiliated with the police department.”
Mobile Police Chief James Barber said department policy allows officers to wear uniforms and drive police cars to and from extra, off-duty jobs. However, the job has to be within the police jurisdiction in order for an officer to drive a car to it. Barber said the benefits of allowing uniformed officers to take police cars to work extra jobs outweigh the costs.
“A uniformed officer in that police car in a city jurisdiction is a benefit to us,” he said. “When you compare that to the cost of the gasoline, it’s very insignificant. It’s not an officer with a Guy Harvey shirt and flip-flops. He’s a fully equipped uniformed police officer, who’s not being paid by the city at the time.”
As part of the policy, officers must fill out an extra work permit, which goes up the chain of command for approval before a job can be worked, Barber said. The department keeps track of the permits and officers are allowed a maximum of 20 hours a week of extra work.
“If an officer intends to work, for say at Walmart, he’ll fill out a form, say what store he’s going to be working at, that he’s going to be in uniform and what his duties will be,” he said. “Say it’s security for inside the store, or outside the store; he’ll write down the number of hours worked per week.”
The department’s moonlighting policy does prohibit officers working private security at certain locations, Barber said. For instance, officers aren’t allowed to work at strip clubs. Also, officers aren’t allowed to work anywhere there might be illegal activity.
“Certainly any business suspected of criminal activity, we wouldn’t approve of officers working there,” he said.
Barber said he has made no changes to the department’s moonlighting policy, but said changes have been discussed as recently as a few weeks ago.
“As we look at it, going forward, in the future, there has been discussion at the staff level here to look at best practices of other agencies and how to control extra job assignments so that you can minimize any kind of impact on conflict of interest type of situations,” Barber said.
Other agencies within the city and county also allow moonlighting. The Mobile County Sheriff’s Office allows its deputies to work private security, according to spokeswoman Lori Myles.
“Our deputies have to fill out an application and it has to be approved by the chain of command to do extra jobs,” she said. “The extra job cannot intrude on their duty schedule. If it interferes with scheduled duty, he or she will not be permitted to do it.”
Myles said deputies are allowed up to 36 hours of extra work a week, and both a car and uniform can be used to do work as a security guard.
Mobile Fire-Rescue Department also allows firefighters and EMS personnel to work jobs with other departments in their free time, according to spokesman Steve Huffman.
“We have a number of firefighters who work non-fire/medical-related part-time jobs outside the department and others who work at other departments, such as Daphne Fire Department, or private ambulance companies,” Huffman wrote in email. “There are some who are volunteer firefighters in their communities.”
The department doesn’t set a maximum number of hours fire and EMS personnel can work other jobs, but a part-time job can’t interfere with their full-time jobs, Huffman wrote.
“If it becomes a problem, which it hasn’t to this point, we would probably have a look at the problem and try to correct it,” he wrote.
Fire and EMS personnel aren’t allowed to use department equipment at other jobs.
Birmingham Police Department also allows officers to moonlight as security officers, according to Sean Edwards, public information officer. He wrote in an email message that officers are allowed to use their uniforms to work private security, but not always allowed to use patrol cars.
One of the reasons Barber is in favor of the department’s policy to allow moonlighting is based on the pay officers receive for work at the department. The base salary for an officer with a high school diploma or equivalent is $29,361. An officer with an associates degree makes $30,848. An officer with a bachelor’s degree makes $32,410 starting out, and the department pays out $34,050 for an officer with a master’s degree.
The base salary comes out to about $618 in net pay every two weeks for a new, single officer at the department, Barber said.
“Keep in mind this starting salary has been constant for seven years,” Barber said. “In other cities, they’re a little more progressive. If you just want to compare the major cites in Alabama, you’ll notice Mobile runs 20 to 30 percent below the other cities.”
Montgomery Police officers make in a range between $36,534 and $45,573. Birmingham Police officers make between $34,340 and $64,833 a year.
Closer to home, Mobile County sheriff’s deputies make a base salary of $34,000, and Mobile firefighters make between $29,361 and $46,938. Fire medics make between $30,847 and $49,314. The salary for fire personnel increases 5 percent for an associates degree, 10 percent for a bachelor’s degree and 20 percent for a master’s degree.
Barber said the lower pay, as dictated by the city budget, makes it tough to recruit new officers to the force in Mobile. Right now, the department has to screen out employees, rather than screen in, he said.
“When you screen out, you take a pool of applicants and you get rid of the ones unsuited for police work,” Barber said. “They’re felons or stuff like that, or they’re on drugs and then you hire from what’s left. Screening in is where you take a pool of applicants and you bring in the most qualified applicants from that pool into the police department and that’s where we want to be.”
A lower pay scale also leads to an increase in attrition, Barber said. Recently the MPD has had an attrition rate of close to 9 percent, or close to 50 officers leaving per year.
“When you lose 50 officers a year, that’s an entire precinct that walks out every year that you’re having to replace,” Barber said.
Turnover at the department can be costly, Barber said, because academy cadets draw benefits, but don’t go out on calls. In all, it costs the department about $2 million a year to replace officers at a 9 percent attrition rate. Barber would like to cut the rate in half to about 4 or 5 percent.
Officers are required to stay with the department for two years following graduation from the academy, but after that time is up relatively new officers can leave for better paying opportunities.
“It was a standing joke around here that after two years you call them deputies,” Barber said. “The other agency, you can’t blame them. They’ve essentially been able to bring in an officer that’s already been trained and already has two years of experience and it costs them nothing to do it. We’re the ones that paid all the expenses.”
Lt. Matt Garrett, who handles private security for McGill-Toolen football games and the Greater Gulf State Fair in the fall, said these security jobs help younger officers feed their families.
“The extra jobs do afford you the opportunity to do that and the bottom line is this, if it weren’t for these extra jobs, many, many good police officers that want nothing more than to be a police officer couldn’t be a police officer because they couldn’t afford it,” he said. “They couldn’t survive.”
Garrett said although he is in a position where he doesn’t need to work the maximum number of hours allowed for moonlighting with the department, he knows many young patrolmen that need to. He added that when he was younger he worked all the time.
“When my children were very young, my wife did not work and extra jobs allowed that,” he said. ”I worked non-stop and she was able to stay at home with the children.”
These extra jobs pay well for police officers. Garrett said the standard rate for a private security job is between $18 and $25 an hour. The pay is less for security guards hired through a private security firm. Those guards are usually paid anywhere from $12 to $15 an hour, Parker said.
Tina Dionne, owner of United America Security Services in Grand Bay, has a total of 22 security guards on staff. United America mostly works commercial jobs. The guards have a good relationship with the police and the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office.
Dionne wants the officers to be able to make the extra money doing security detail, but she’s concerned with the liability involved with an officer wearing a uniform and driving a police car while off-duty and working private security.
“If they’re moonlighting and it’s private, I don’t think they should – especially if they go out on their own,” she said. “If they shoot someone and if they’re in uniform that opens up a can of worms.”
Barber said it’s not common for an off-duty officer to get involved in situations where the discharge of a firearm would be necessary.
“Most of the time, it’s always on-duty stuff,” he said. “Most of the off-duty officers try to avoid intervening and when they do, they’re calling on-duty over there; like if they make an arrest, they’ll call on-duty officers to respond.”
In fact, Barber couldn’t remember the last time a complaint was filed against an off-duty officer.
Stephen Moore, a local personal injury attorney, said in his 30 years of practicing law he can’t remember a time the city was brought in on a lawsuit involving the actions of an off-duty police officer.
Alabama statute 65-38(c) puts a cap on municipal liability in situations like that, Moore said. If a successful suit were brought against the city, it would only pay out a maximum of $100,000 per person, or $300,000 per event.
City Attorney Ricardo Woods added that the private entity hiring any off-duty police officers for security purposes must have insurance to cover the possible pay out, or that entity, or its board of directors is held liable.
“These cases are fact-specific,” Woods said. “Officers, just like citizens, must act within the confines of the law. However, the law gives officers the ability to act in an official capacity to stop crime.”
Woods said the statute allows officers to work as off-duty security guards in larger Alabama municipalities. He added while suits involving off-duty officers have been brought against the city, there have been no recent judgments for plaintiffs in those cases.
While the cap applies to lawsuits brought about in state court, it doesn’t apply to civil rights cases filed in federal court, said former prosecutor and personal injury attorney Steve Martino of Taylor Martino in Mobile.
“Some of these cases will consist of state and federal claims,” he said. “However, those cases are really, really hard to win.”
Martino added that the question of liability related to these situations is a tricky one and depends on the aspects of each case. It should be taken on a case-by-case situation.
Moore said he supports off-duty police working security and believes it to be a benefit to the city.
“The benefit outweighs any exposure the city might have,” he said.
Word of mouth
For many officers, like Garrett, acquiring off-duty security work happens by word of mouth. Either they will hear about it themselves, or will hear about it through another officer. Garrett said officers don’t solicit work.
“In any job I’ve been a part of or organized I’ve been contacted by an individual, or have been handed the job by another officer,” he said.
If there’s a scheduling conflict, it’s common for officers to find another officer to take the job in their place.
“A lot of times if, let’s say, I have a job and I’m unable to work it, or whatever the case may be,” Garrett said. “If I don’t know of anyone off hand, what a lot of officers do is they’ll put out an email to the entire police department saying ‘I have an extra job available this Saturday, these are the times, anyone interested please contact me.’”
There are cases where more than one officer has a history of working a certain detail, Garrett said. In those cases, officers hand off shifts they can’t work to another officer familiar with the job, which might seem like favoritism.
“If I’m unable to do it, or if I’m unable to make the schedule, then I would count on a secondary officer, or an officer that has been working that job to be fair,” he said. “I understand, talking about favoritism, it’s a double-edged sword to be honest with you. There’s no perfect way of doing it.”
Another concern related to favoritism is the possibility that a lower-ranked officer gives work to a higher-ranked officer in exchange for leniency on the job. Barber and Garrett both said they understand that concern, but haven’t seen that behavior at the MPD.
Further, Garrett said there are too many local security jobs available for favoritism to be a real concern.
“I would say it’s not an issue because extra jobs are so common,” Garrett said. “No matter whether I’m a patrolman on the street, or I’m an executive staff member. If I really want to work, I can find an extra job to work.”
Garrett used the fair as an example. He needed 50 officers to help staff security for the fair, but had to solicit help from other agencies just to fill the needed positions.
“I had to pull from smaller agencies just to come cover it because I can’t get enough people from our department to cover it,” Garrett said. “So, It’s not a matter of favoritism — maybe 30 years ago – but today there’s so much work and so few people who want to work that you get who you can when you can.”
Barber believes the moonlighting program benefits the city, the taxpayers, the officers and the department. He said in addition to allowing officers to make extra money, the moonlighting program puts more officers on the street and has a deterrent effect.
“We have had on several occasions where off-duty officers, either performing off-duty assignments, or otherwise were able to respond to very serious in-progress crimes just by being in that area,” Barber said. “We’ve had time and again where robbery suspects, or other situations have occurred where off-duty officers were able to take them into to custody.”