Although Montgomery County residents might feel safer knowing off-duty police officers provide security for many area businesses, some officials fear the practice could be risking an ethics violation, or worse.
Federal and state law allows local government employees to work part-time jobs but, because police are tasked with impartially upholding the law, additional considerations can come into play when officers take on part-time work, according to the agreement between Montgomery County and the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35, the union organization representing county police officers.
The agreement — outlined in Article 27 of the collective bargaining agreement reached by the FOP and the county — also allows officers to wear their uniforms and use county equipment, including firearms, while working part-time jobs, a clause that some officials think could lead to conflicts of interest.
“[Police officers] are considered on-duty 24/7, so that, if you were working in an establishment as private security, it’s a sense of who do you work for? The county police department or the bar and business owners?” said Cathleen M. Conlyn, chair of the Anne Arundel County Ethics Commission. “There are incredible liability issues there that nobody wants to look at.”
Despite the ethical concerns expressed in Anne Arundel County, no such debate is ongoing in Montgomery County. Chief Counsel of the Montgomery County Ethics Commission Robert W. Cobb indicated the county’s current agreement with Lodge 35 was carefully constructed with the avoidance of ethical problems in mind.
“That officers have obligations, while off duty, to respond in an official capacity when in uniform or driving a police vehicle also weighs into the construct of the program,” Cobb wrote in a brief email statement sent in response to The Gazette’s questions.
Marc Zifcak, the immediate past president of FOP Lodge 35, argued the requirement on off-duty officers to act when they see a crime precludes them from having a conflict of interest.
“It doesn’t matter what they’re working as a part-time job, the minute something occurs in front of them where it becomes necessary for a police action, they are no longer working for anyone but the people of Montgomery County,” Zifcak said.
Zifcak added he thinks many businesses and residents are in favor of officers working part-time security jobs, especially after the tragic mass shooting at the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colo., on July 20.
“I don’t think anyone would mind [having an officer] at the movie theater that weekend,” he said.
Conlyn thinks the issue remains unaddressed in most counties because ethics commissions, typically volunteer positions, are excluded from the bargaining process between counties and the fraternal orders of police. Police unions, such as the FOP lodges, also are powerful lobbying groups able to file substantial lawsuits when they feel their interests are threatened, Conlyn said.
After first confronting the issue in 2007, Conlyn and the Anne Arundel County Ethics Commission suggested private businesses could hire officers to work overtime directly through the department, a process she thinks would eliminate the ethical concern of officers seeking private work individually.
“It would be a much cleaner assignment than the officer working directly with the business entity, and that’s what many departments do … but it was not well received by the FOP,” she said.
Zifcak and current FOP Lodge 35 President Torrie Cooke disagreed with Conlyn’s solution. If anything, even more ethical concerns would arise from allowing department officials to choose which officers are offered overtime opportunities, Zifcak said.
“I don’t see anything at all that makes it easier when you involve bureaucrats, or any bureaucracy, between employers and employees,” Zifcak said.
County Councilman Phil Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg, who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee, declined to comment Monday on secondary employment for police. Andrews said he was reluctant to comment without having taken more time to consider the topic fully.
Secondary employment remains popular with county police. Last year, roughly 75 percent of the 1,200 new applications for part-time work came from police officers seeking secondary employment in a security-related field, according to the county commission’s year-end report for 2011.
“Most officers do it out of necessity; I mean, I'm making less than I was three years ago,” said Officer Philip Butler, a nine-year veteran with Montgomery County Police. “I wonder to myself if they took the program away how that would affect not just the businesses that we serve, but how that would affect the officers that do it ... a lot of guys, this is how they make ends meet.”
Butler, who owns Top Ten Enterprises, founded Knight Time Security, a private security company, two years ago. Under Knight Time Security, Butler provides off-duty police and sheriff’s deputies work security details at area businesses, including at the Regal Majestic movie theater in Silver Spring.
“We've been down here for years, this isn't something new,” Butler said. “And when you're approaching 1.2 million residents here in the county, ensuring public safety is easier when you have someone in the building who can handle an emergency right away.”