Reversing long-standing policy, the Baltimore County government has decided to allow its off-duty police officers to wear their uniforms while they are working as part-time security guards for shopping malls.
The new policy, which is to take effect in June, also will allow the officers to use their county guns and radios in mall security work. They will not be permitted to use county patrol cars, however.
County Executive Roger B. Hayden was to announce the new policy today at a news conference at Towson Town Center.
At present, an estimated 75 to 100 county officers work off-duty security jobs at malls, but cannot wear their county uniforms.
The change in policy is the result of months of talks between county officials and business interests who want to reassure shoppers nervous about crime.
The new policy could open the way for private groups, such as residential communities worried about neighborhood crime, to hire off-duty county officers in full uniform to patrol their streets.
Businesses wishing to employ uniformed county officers would have to get a new county permit and pay a permit fee of up to $500 a year. In addition, businesses hiring the officers would have to pay the county 75 cents an hour to defray the cost of wear and tear on county equipment. The County Council must approve the permit fee.
The policy is similar to one discussed last winter by County Council Chairman Charles A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-3rd. Cornelius J. Behan, who will be retiring as police chief, has opposed such a policy for years.
Chief Behan was especially worried that the county could be liable for the actions of off-duty officers in uniform. The chief says those worries have since been allayed by the county law office. As a condition of the permit, the firm hiring the officers would have to insure the county against liability, county officials say.
"The pressure is on" for more uniformed officers to be seen in sensitive areas like shopping malls, says Chief Behan. "It's a trend all around the country."
Chris Schardt, general manager of Towson Town Center, says businesses sought the change in response to the fears of customers.
"It just adds a level of comfort for some of the customers," as well as serving as a "visual deterrent" to crime, he says. The crime problem at malls is partly one of perception, he says, adding that "It's getting a little more dangerous out there every day."
To calm fears of possible misuse of county police authority, the new policy establishes activities prohibited under the permit.
Anyone applying for a permit to hire uniformed officers must first show a reasonable need. In addition, moonlighting officers cannot use access to official police records in their part-time jobs, and cannot work as salespeople, tend bar, collect debts, serve court papers, work as private detectives or bail bondsmen, or provide security at companies where workers are on strike.
Officers also would be prohibited from any off-duty work that would "bring disrespect or disfavor" on the department or its members, that would impair the efficiency of the police department, or prevent an officer's emergency recall to duty.