Pittsburgh studying cities' off-duty police policies

| Friday, March 8, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Public Safety Director Michael Huss said on Thursday that he is studying how other cities handle off-duty police details as a scandal over the Pittsburgh department's secondary employment system widens.

Huss said he continues to talk with police brass and union members about the city's moonlighting details, which are a focus of documents seized under subpoena last month by FBI and Internal Revenue Service agents.

“We're trying to review everything internally, and we're trying to figure out what the best model is going forward,” Huss said. “We don't want to just start making changes. We want to look at it and evaluate everything before we start to act.”

Huss cautioned that he has not yet found a system with an “all-around best practice.” He declined to say at which departments he was looking.

The Tribune-Review found that 30 Pittsburgh officers earned more than $100,000 each since 2010 by working off-duty details approved by former Chief Nate Harper. Officers received $17.4 million for working off-duty at bars, sporting events and other details from Jan. 1, 2010, to Feb. 22, 2013.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl asked Harper to resign on Feb. 20 after FBI and IRS subpoenas for documents tied to the department's off-duty system.

Federal investigators appear to have targeted the police bureau's Personnel and Finance Office and its Special Events Office. Special events coordinated the off-duty payouts and the $2.3 million in fees that retailers paid the city for the protection of uniformed officers.

The department applies a $3.85 hourly charge for administration for off-duty police details.

Two out of every three officers on Pittsburgh's 850-member force work such jobs annually. Some say the income is important to supplement their salary.

Critics within the department complain that the system allows officers who serve as ad hoc “schedulers” to assign off-duty work to their friends and family, locking out other officers. They also claim that a “Detail Mafia” among some officers gave pals a jump on the most lucrative assignments.

The critics also allege the system allowing officers to negotiate wages directly with off-duty employers increases the likelihood of internal corruption by dividing officers' loyalties between employers and their uniformed superiors.

Acting Chief Regina McDonald refused to answer written Trib questions culled from these complaints and the newspaper's research into best practices promulgated by other municipal police agencies nationwide.

“Thank you for the insight into the best practices adopted by other departments. However, we will provide no statement regarding how other departments implement their policies and procedures, as we would expect them to not provide comments on (our) practices,” McDonald replied in a written statement.

Officer Bob Swartzwelder, a member of the Fraternal Order of Police Labor Management Committee, scoffed at the suggestion that the city's police hierarchy wants to be part of a solution.

“The command staff had a shot at fixing this and, in my opinion, have managed to impugn the reputation of the entire bureau by their inaction,” Swartzwelder said.

He has discussed with Controller Michael Lamb, a Democratic candidate for mayor, extending municipal oversight to the police bureau's secondary employment system.

“Remember that the city made this into a for-profit service. We're losing sight of the fact that it was the mismanagement of this system by the police bureau that caused all these problems, not the officer standing out in the cold directing traffic during a Steelers game,” Swartzwelder said.

Lamb told the Trib that city officials should remove the Special Events Office from police headquarters. Though he's mulling absorbing the secondary employment system into the Controller's Office, Lamb suggested that another municipal agency might make a better home.

“Part of the solution at special events is the whole process has to be separate of the police bureau. There's too much opportunity there for favoritism and other things,” Lamb said.

Margaret Harding, Bob Bauder and Carl Prine are Trib Total Media staff writers. Reach Harding at 412-380-8519 or mharding@tribweb.com. Reach Bauder at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com. Reach Prine at 412-320-7826or cprine@tribweb.com.

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