Mayor Frey aims to rein in off-duty police work, creates task force

Minneapolis police squad car.
A Minneapolis Police Department squad car. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer

When former police officer Mohamed Noor clocked in for his 10-hour police shift on the July night he shot and killed Justine Ruszczyk in south Minneapolis, he had just come from a seven-hour shift moonlighting as a security guard.

More than two years later, Mayor Jacob Frey plans to create a task force to examine the off-duty security work police are doing at bars and clubs, Viking games and road races, often in uniform and at the behest of the city.

Officers can rack up dozens of off-duty hours on top of their regular work loads, with a recent audit discovering about 100 officers worked more than 24 off-duty hours in a single week at least five times in the course of the year. That exceeds the city’s 64-hour work limit for police officers.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey

“We want officers to be accountable to our Minneapolis Police Department, to our chief and to our general public, not specifically to a business that’s paying them,” Frey said in an interview with Minnesota Reformer. Frey plans to officially announce the task force at a press conference next week.

The off-duty work currently goes largely unmonitored, even though the city often requires businesses to hire them and lends officers city resources like squad cars for off-duty work. This system saves the city significant money because it dumps the costs of weekend bar scene supervision, for instance, from the city onto the bars themselves.

But side jobs have also created a semi-privatized police force, since businesses hire and pay officers directly. It’s ripe for abuse and kickbacks, while exposing the city to massive liability for the actions of officers who are not on the city clock but look and sound and are supposed to act exactly like on-duty police.

The 2019 audit of off-duty work is silent about concerns of wrongdoing, focusing instead on problems related to the department monitoring the off-duty work, and the fatigue that many officers endure while juggling significant on- and off-duty hours.

“Fatigue may heighten pre-existing biases, increase complaints and use-of-force incidents, impair driving performance and in general lead to impairment of performance of routine skills,” the audit contends.

Noor, who was sentenced last year to 12 years, had just 90 minutes off before clocking in for the fateful shift that ended Ruszczyk’s life.

“[We] will never know what happened there,” said Council Member Linea Palmisano, who represents the area where Ruszczyk was killed and spearheaded the audit of off-duty work. “But every single piece around that, I have an obligation to make better.”

Minneapolis Council Member Linea Palmisano
Minneapolis Council Member Linea Palmisano

Palmisano emphasized that she has been eager to examine off-duty police work for years, well before the Noor matter.

Frey said he hopes to have recommendations by June, in time for his budget proposal — given that changes could be costly.

Complicating matters, the city is currently negotiating a new, three-year contract with the police union, which means any changes to off-duty work sought by the mayor could be the source of negotiation.

Some of the recommendations made by the task force could require changing the police contract, but it’s possible the task force won’t finish their work before a new contract is agreed upon.

Assistant Police Chief Michael Kjos, who will serve on the task force, said that since the audit, the department has been designing a program for managers to monitor their staff’s on- and off-duty hours. They’re also working on an app for officers’ phones that would let them log their off-duty hours and locations.

Since the audit, Kjos says officers have been better about recording their off-duty hours. “But it’s not without weak spots, and we want to tighten up those weak spots so that there’s very little chance for missing important information,” Kjos said.

In addition to making recommendations on how off-duty police work is monitored, the task force will look at how work should be assigned.

Currently, officers with connections to businesses or event planners are able to secure extra work for themselves and the colleagues they choose, while other officers who might want to pick up extra work may not be able to find it.

Frey and Palmisano say they haven’t made up their minds on how off-duty work should be assigned and are looking to the task force for recommendations. The audit describes alternative systems where the police department or the police union would manage off-duty work.

Palmisano said she also wants to look at the city’s ordinances requiring off-duty work. For example, Minneapolis requires event organizers to hire off-duty officers anytime alcohol is being consumed in public spaces even if it’s a neighborhood picnic. Oftentimes, there’s not enough officers for all the off-duty work the city mandates.

“We’re going to have to look in the mirror and look at how much we’ve been driving the need to have these off-duty officers,” Palmisano said. She also said the council should have a say in which events are staffed. “If there are 100 opportunities for off duty work, and there are only 30 people [available], I want us to be able to say here’s the ones with the most public purpose.”

This isn’t the first time Minneapolis has tried to rein in off-duty work. Back in 1994 and 1997, there were similar efforts involving audits and task forces, but ultimately neither resulted in substantial changes.

Palmisano said she’s confident that they can be successful this time around because the task force includes a representative from the Minneapolis Police Federation, the union representing some 800 officers.

“We need (the union) at the table to be a part of the solution,” Palmisano said. “They seem to be interested in it from their members’ wellness perspective. We’re interested in it from a performance perspective. And I think that there’s potential here to be better than all the times in the past.”

Palmisano will serve on the mayor’s task force with her fellow Council Members Alondra Cano and Steve Fletcher, as well as Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, Deputy Police Chief Kathy Waite, Minneapolis Police Federation Vice President Sherral Schmidt and Minneapolis Chief Financial Officer and Interim City Coordinator Mark Ruff.