Suburban police officers' off-duty work comes down to details
As in Pittsburgh, many suburban police departments contacted by the Tribune-Review allow their officers to work off-duty details and the municipalities charge administrative fees for a cut of the revenue.
An FBI investigation of the Pittsburgh police department involving off-duty details and the fees generated from them has focused attention on the practice, though the rules and restrictions vary.
“We don't permit officers to work at bars. We're very selective. Public image is important,” said Penn Hills police Chief Howard Burton. “It's a liability issue and the perception. We don't need officers involved in something like that.
“In the city, I can see why they do it in the South Side. They're trying to control crowds.”
Penn Hills police negotiate their rate with vendors, but all invoices go through the municipality, which collects a $3.50 hourly administrative fee and a $6.25 an hour if the officer needs a car, Burton said.
Burton said Penn Hills police work private security details at public housing complexes, Giant Eagle and carnivals and street fairs, generating $11,889 for the municipality in 2012.
Pittsburgh collects about $700,000 annually from a $3.85 hourly fee. Federal prosecutors charged former Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper, 60, last month with directing more than $70,000 into accounts he opened that were not authorized city depositories, and spending at least $31,986 on meals, drinks and other personal uses.
In the city, bars can pay the officers directly or have the invoices go through the police department.
Mt. Lebanon police Lt. Aaron Lauth said police administrators there approve off-duty details. Mt. Lebanon charges a 2.5 percent fee and increases it to 5 percent if the detail requires a police cruiser. Mt. Lebanon collected $6,093 in 2012.
“Officers are not allowed to work a detail if (vendors) are serving alcohol for profit,” Lauth said. “The overtime is offered to people with the least amount of overtime first and then up the list.
“We work a lot of sporting events for the school district and road construction. The billing comes from the finance department in the municipality. For obvious reasons, we feel that's the way to go — keep everything official and on the books.”
Ross police Detective Brian Kohlhepp said all details there are invoiced through the township at an overtime rate, and they must be approved by the department.
He said officers regularly work in Ross Park Mall on weekends and St. Sebastian Church, among others.
Officers are not prohibited from working at bars, although it's rare that they do.
Ross charges $61.28 an hour for the officers' time, with a $5-per-hour fee built into that cost. The township collected about $10,800 from the fee last year, township manager Doug Sample said.
“We have done details for special events at bars such as working St. Patrick's Day, but there's no regular details. All details are reviewed on a case-by-case basis,” Kohlhepp said.
University of Pittsburgh public administration and policy expert George Dougherty said it's reasonable for police departments to charge an administrative fee for off-duty details because an officer hurt during an off-duty detail could file for workers' compensation through the municipality. If a lawsuit erupted from an off-duty detail incident, the municipality likely would be named as a defendant, he said.
“When they stay in uniform they're still official representatives of the city. My preference is to have the billing run through the normal financial channels. In some ways that protects the police department because the financial relationships are at a reasonable arms-length,” Dougherty said.
He said it might help on-duty officers to have off-duty details working in an area, especially where there are heavy concentrations of bars and crowds.
Cranberry charges a rate of $65 but does not include an administrative fee.
“That's time-and-a-half plus workers' comp fees, Social Security. We're not here to be making money (on off-duty details). We don't have the manpower to do that,” said Jeff Schueler, Cranberry's public safety director.
“We don't do security details. We do do traffic controls. Most of ours are construction details.”
Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or firstname.lastname@example.org.