LOCAL NEWS

Seattle cops off-duty work comes under investigation

Sep 19, 2017, 5:49 AM | Updated: Sep 20, 2017, 7:17 am
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(AP file photo)
(AP file photo)

Seattle police officers have been the focus of an investigation by the Office of Police Accountability about the unchecked use of off-duty cops for high-priced security and traffic control work after local businesses complained about getting pressured to use the officers or face unspecified repercussions.

The investigation, not yet publicly disclosed, centers allegations that cops and police-staffed security companies use strong-arm tactics to secure off-duty work contracts; that they overcharge for hours worked; that they require “management fees” paid to senior officers to guarantee staffing and that there is no system in place to adequately track and oversee officers’ off-duty hours, according to sources familiar with the investigation.

The potential problems, sources said, are so pervasive that the OPA turned over some of its initial findings to FBI agents who also have conducted interviews in recent weeks. But it is unclear at this point how far the FBI inquiry has reached.

According to one local business owner, who asked that his name not be used out of fear of reprisals, “There are people making a lot of money on this. And they have been doing this for years. People are scared to talk about it.”

The Seattle Police administration would not confirm an investigation into the off-duty work or that the FBI has made inquiries about it. In a statement released late Monday, the SPD officials said only, “As a general point, we have a strong partnership with the FBI and routinely refer allegations to that agency for review or investigation as appropriate.”

“As to any specific matter that is suggested to be under FBI review or investigation, we defer to the FBI for any comment.”

The core of the issue, according to public records and people familiar with the OPA investigation, centers of Seattle police officers off-duty work primarily through numerous off-duty officer staffing companies such as Seattle’s Finest and Seattle Security.

Because Seattle requires commissioned traffic officers to direct traffic around the city’s growing forest of construction sites and parking garages, the work generally goes to off-duty and retired officers who already have that certification.

But over decades, critics say, representatives of companies that employ off-duty cops have pressured building and construction site managers to hire only off-duty cops to ensure that police response arrives quickly should there be an emergency – a veiled threat that going with a non-police staffed company could put a site more at risk.

The allegations, however, extend deeper than simply individual staffing issues.

Business managers and site managers also have complained that Seattle’s downtown thicket of garages and its dozens of major construction sites and event spaces have been unofficially divided among a small cabal of officers who “control” certain garages and areas, and who get paid hundreds of dollars in management fees — above the hourly off-duty wages — to ensure that officers show up for security work and traffic control.

Sunday traffic work, for example, can pay $90 an hour or more.

“It’s three or four (cops) who run off-duty,” said one veteran officer who requested anonymity. “They run the show. If they don’t like you, you don’t get the work.”

While off-duty work isn’t forbidden, many cities limit the number of hours and the scope of the work. In Portland, for example, all off-duty work is both limited, controlled and tracked by the police administration. Private staffing companies are not allowed.

Not so in Seattle.

Seattle police officers must get permission to work in off-duty jobs such as traffic control or security. But once permission for a job is granted – a procedure as simple as filling out a sheet of paper and leaving it with a supervisor – wages, hours and employer are not tracked by administrators.

This lack of tracking has led to problems, critics inside and outside the department say.

At its most basic, the awarding of lucrative, off-duty jobs to certain officers but not others has created internal resentment and increased tension in a department just beginning to emerge from a federal consent decree for its use of excessive force.

And it’s creating administration problems as well. The police department’s chief financial officer and the former director of the police accountability office both have said the growth of off-duty work must be better managed.

Brian Maxey, the chief operating officer of the Seattle Police Department, wrote in a March 15, 2016 memo to the city auditor’s office that the department lacked adequate control of off-duty work.

“The audit found that the department could benefit from more control of off-duty police work which is an issue SPD has been actively working on,” he wrote to city auditor David Jones. He went on to complain in the letter that there was “no easy way” to track off-duty hours.

Pierce Murphy, the former director of police accountability, was more direct. In his final public statement to the Seattle City Council when former Mayor Ed Murray declined to renew his appointment, Murphy called the lack of institutional control on off-duty police work, “a ticking time bomb.”

According to a June 28, 2017 Seattle Times story, Murphy asserted to the city council that some police officers make more money in off-duty contracts than they do while on-duty. “This is all about money,” he said.

“It’s true,” the officer said. “There are people out there making double their salary on off-duty work.”

Murphy, who now works for the Seattle Catholic Archdiocese, declined to comment about any possible investigation.

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Seattle cops off-duty work comes under investigation