Minneapolis off-duty police work badly in need of reform

The situation with off-duty work by Minneapolis Police is out of controls, the writer argue. Photo by Tony Webster/Minnesota Reformer.

Restructuring public safety in Minneapolis is a clear priority for many people — including small businesses like ours. One way we can do our part to support a reimagining of community safety in the private sector is to shine a light on the off-duty roles police officers play as private contractors — and how that system is abusive.

Problems with off-duty policing go back decades. The city often requires businesses to hire them for events but has never monitored the number of off-duty hours worked by Minneapolis Police Department officers, nor the compensation. There is a growing consensus that off-duty work needs to be at least transparent and tracked. Even before the civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd, there were calls within City Hall to make substantive changes.

Too many hours

For instance, an internal audit released in September 2019 outlined the problem: 

In 2018, 654 officers — 77% of the force — worked one or more off-duty shifts. 

And, 98 officers — a full 12% — worked more than a total of 64 hours in a week at least 5 times that year. MPD policy states that an officer cannot work more than 64 hours in a 7 day period — off-duty and on-duty combined —  so at least 98 officers that year were in violation of stated policy. But there is no enforcement, because there is no formal monitoring system. 

In the most tragic example, Officer Mohamed Noor had just 90 minutes rest after working a seven hour security shift before clocking in for his 10 hour shift with MPD on the night he shot and killed Justine Ruszczyk. 

Do we really want cops pulling out their guns after working 17 hours in one day? 

Too much cash

Off-duty assignments are contracted with individual police officers. We contacted the city about the process of hiring off-duty officers as small business owners, and we were told that if we knew an MPD officer personally, we should arrange with them directly. One person looking to hire off-duty police for a wedding said the rate they were quoted for an event in 2020 was $85 per hour, with a two hour minimum. 

Another person, working an event for a non-profit, said that the off-duty police demanded payment in cash, and refused to provide an invoice or W-9 form for documentation. The September 2019 audit by the city confirmed that most officers demand cash payments. The audit recommended that this practice be eliminated.  

Obviously cash payments make it a lot easier for MPD officers to avoid paying taxes on their full income. In the most infamous case to date, now former officer Derek Chauvin, currently in jail on murder charges in the Floyd case, has been charged with failing to file Minnesota taxes for many years, and lying about his income on the returns he did file. According to prosecutors, from 2014 to 2019, the Chauvins underreported $464,433 in joint income. 

In 2018, according to the city audit, off-duty officers worked an estimated total of 110,672 hours. If that number stayed consistent, and using the rate of $85/hr., that is $9.4 million to MPD officers, some portion of which may be off the books.

And, yet, when MPD officers show up for an off-duty job, they bring the uniform, gun, and often, squad car — all paid for by Minneapolis taxpayers, but without accountability to the taxpayers.

Too much power

This sorta on-duty thing that most officers eagerly participate in also brings up an important dilemma, especially for downtown business owners. They need to be able to count on on-duty response, but risk being blacklisted if they don’t pay cash for off-duty protection. As small business owners, this puts all of us in between a rock and a hard place.

Officers are also indemnified by the city for anything that happens on an off-duty job. In December 2017, the city of Minneapolis paid $75,000 to the private attorney of an off-duty officer who beat up a man after becoming intoxicated at a bar and then used his position as a police officer to get other officers to arrest the man. This is on top of the $43 million Minneapolis taxpayers have paid out to settle police misconduct related settlements, claims and judgments since 2003. 

What can we do?

As a result of the 2019 September audit, Mayor Jacob Frey announced the formation of a “work group” in January of this year to study the issue of off-duty policing. According to a representative from the mayor’s office, the “work group” has met exactly once in the past six months. 

In a report released on August 4th, they identified one issue they’re working on — removing requirements to hire off-duty officers as a condition of getting a business license. There are seven businesses affected, and the work group has given themselves four months to resolve this issue and remove these conditions. 

There’s nothing in the update about the main recommendations of the audit:

  • Eliminate cash payments, with the city taking over billing and remittance of off-duty wages, as most other cities do.
  • Require officers to report their off-duty hours to MPD so the total number of hours worked, both on- and off-duty, can be monitored.
  • Move the scheduling of off-duty work to MPD, removing the incentive for individual officers to freelance for lucrative off-duty contracts. 

Additionally, there needs to be structural changes in how the MPD works with business owners to provide security. Changes that reflect a desire and passion for eliminating the systemic racism we see on a daily basis within the MPD. The current system simply empowers a mercenary culture.

These seem like reasonable, common-sense measures to reduce the “anything goes” aspects of off-duty police work, and could help transform the culture within MPD to one where the rights and safety of residents — not property — are prioritized. 

Why isn’t our city leadership quickly implementing these simple changes?

In the meantime, as fellow small business owners, we are asking all businesses with a current contract with MPD officers for off-duty security to reexamine the cost/benefit ratio of their security plans. Are there alternatives to uniformed police with a gun? Does potential for a catastrophic event like what happened to George Floyd outweigh the perceived benefits of having a uniformed officer doing security? 

Remember, George Floyd was killed over allegedly passing a bogus $20 bill at a local small business. There is no universe where the treatment he received befits the crime he was accused of.

If the gravy train of “dark money” from off-duty work is cut off, rank-and-file officers may take another look at their union leadership and decide the time is ripe for change. Police Federation Director Sgt. Anna Hedberg publicly admitted she was uncomfortable shopping in the same places where she policed. Perhaps getting rid of union leaders with this kind of attitude could start to transform the culture of the MPD from one of “us vs. them,” to one in which we are all part of the same community. 

What we need to protect property, and provide safety for all Minneapolis residents, is a police force that feels like they’re part of the community and will treat all of us with compassion and respect. Reforming off-duty policing is an important step in achieving that goal, and small businesses have an active part to play.