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Pittsburgh policies for off-duty police officers' gigs lax

By Carl Prine and Margaret Harding
Monday, March 11, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

Sure, the “Big Easy” has a reputation for sin, sex and booze, but New Orleans prohibits uniformed officers from moonlighting at bars, casinos and strip clubs, restrictions that are tougher than what Pittsburgh police have.

CBS' “Hawaii Five-0” glamorizes Honolulu police, but what's often missed is that the department's ethics code is so strict that cops can't even pull off-duty work around pinball machines or bingo parlors.

In Pittsburgh, the ad hoc liaisons between city police officers and retailers who want to rent their off-duty services — called “schedulers” — are considered a quaint anachronism in Cincinnati. There, schedulers disappeared under the pressure of the department's quality-control cops and city auditors who crusaded against their power.

And while Toledo, Ohio, still lets schedulers fill out off-duty rosters, commanders there draw the line on letting cops patrol strip joints and establishments owned by convicted felons — both tolerated in Pittsburgh, critics contend.

“No. No strip clubs,” said Toledo police spokesman Sgt. Joe Heffernan. “We're also not allowed to work at any place that has high calls for service, any place where gangs congregate or where narcotics are suspected of being sold.”

In fact, when the Tribune-Review surveyed these municipal police forces to check how they dispense off-duty gigs to their sworn officers, Pittsburgh came out at the bottom.

The check showed Pittsburgh police continue to promulgate policies that other agencies contend leave top supervisors unaccountable; the rules too often tempt officers with cronyism, tax evasion and corruption; and the setup usurps the traditional police chain of command while overworking sleepy cops trying to make ends meet in the midst of a municipal fiscal crisis.

The issues took center stage in Pittsburgh's department after the seizure of police documents by FBI and Internal Revenue Service agents, the forced resignation of Chief Nate Harper and a nearly daily roll call of wrongs as more whistle-blowers emerge to condemn business as usual.

Since October, the Fraternal Order of Police union has bypassed Harper; his replacement, Regina McDonald; and other high-ranking police officials to meet secretly with whistle-blowers in the 850-member force and carry their concerns to City Controller Mike Lamb and, over the past several weeks, Public Safety Director Mike Huss.

FOP Labor-Management Committeeman Bob Swartzwelder said that a recent meeting Huss held with union whistle-blowers lasted for 7 12 hours, and no commanders from police headquarters in the North Side were invited as they brainstormed ways to fix a broken moonlighting system.

FOP's demands:

• Gut the power of the schedulers coordinating many of the most lucrative off-duty jobs at bars, stadiums and restaurants, taking with it their ability for reprisals against fellow officers by blocking them from off-duty work.

• Yank the department's Special Events section out of the North Side headquarters and subject it to audits by Lamb, making its operations transparent.

• Probe allegations that a “Detail Mafia” inside the bureau slid the best jobs to friends and family while its funds for several years were being diverted to mystery bank accounts by those with the most power in the agency.

• Take away the incentives retailers have to avoid the city's $3.85 hourly administrative surcharge on off-duty officers by paying cops under the table.

“We need to get Special Events out of the Police Bureau,” said FOP's Swartzwelder. “We need to set up a fair system. We need to ask hard questions about whether we're skimping on the number of police officers this city should have and overworking officers on details just so that they can make ends meet. We have choices here. We don't have to keep the old system.”

When the Trib asked acting Chief McDonald what she would do to reform the system, she initially said that her hands were tied by the city's Collective Bargaining Agreement with the FOP and a grievance process that worked against her.

On Tuesday, the Trib sent her a list of questions culled from secondary employment reforms that other cities enacted after similar scandals. She dismissed it.

Simultaneously, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and his police superintendent, Ronal Serpas, announced the phased implementation of a new detail system to end generations of entrenched cronyism and corruption — reforms begun after federal agents also dug through financial records of previous administrations there.

“When I came into office in 2010, we made it clear the flawed paid detail system was failing both the NOPD, and more importantly, our citizens,” said Landrieu in a written statement to the Trib. “We have been working with NOPD officers, businesses, schools, neighborhood organizations, among others, to make sure we get it right. The new plan represents the start of a centralized system that has strong oversight yet still serves customers effectively.”

Serpas said the new centralized moonlighting office would be a model for the rest of the nation, one that took the best ideas from the most respected law enforcement agencies and tailored them for the Crescent City.

“All officers who would like extra work to earn some extra money for their families will have an equal chance at getting those opportunities once the new detail system is in place,” said Serpas. “We're striving for a transparent and fair system.”

Landrieu's City Council is expected unanimously to support the reforms on April 4, nearly two years after the Bureau of Governmental Research, a New Orleans nonprofit, published its landmark “Moonlighting” report detailing how 30 of the nation's best municipal departments cleaned up — and how New Orleans might, too.

“Isn't it great when everyone knows they've got a great idea and know where they want to go and how they might get there?” asked Janet Howard, the bureau's president and chief executive officer.

The bureau's researchers did not use Pittsburgh as an example.

By Thursday, McDonald was echoing her boss, Huss, saying she would convene a blue-ribbon panel of commanders and FOP representatives to study how other cities worked out their problems.

In the meantime, Pittsburgh officers are able quietly to solicit detail business from Pittsburgh companies, a policy that would land any of Cincinnati's 980 sworn officers “in a lot of hot water,” according to police spokeswoman Julie Johnson.

“That'll mean punishment, possibly termination,” she said.

Honolulu's police department holds commanders accountable for what junior officers do during off-duty jobs, which is why “commanders make periodic inspections of all unsupervised special duty and voluntary police service sites in their districts to ensure that assignments are properly handled,” said Capt. Gordon Gomes, head of the Special Duty section, in a written statement.

In Cincinnati, shift leaders must fill out a form showing that they randomly inspect at least one off-duty detail on their watch.

Pittsburgh cops merely sign a log telling the zones that they're pulling off-duty work in the neighborhood. No commander needs to visit them.

“They're often too busy to be able to go and inspect the details,” McDonald said.

Carl Prine and Margaret Harding are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Prine can be reached at 412-320-7826 or cprine@tribweb.com. Harding can be reached at 412-380-8519 or mharding@tribweb.com.

 

 
 


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