Arson adds to policy debate

In Arundel, moonlighting by police is scrutinized

Legal, ethical issues can arise

School construction site may have been unguarded

October 17, 2004|By Sarah Schaffer | Sarah Schaffer,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County, which recently barred its police officers from working off hours as security guards in the county's bingo parlors, also is investigating whether a moonlighting officer might have failed to prevent a suspected arson at a school construction site.

The incident, as well as the new prohibition on performing security work at bingo parlors, highlights a problem for police departments nationwide that permit moonlighting, despite concerns that the actions of an off-duty officer could affect the image -- and possibly incur the liability -- of an entire department.

The arson at the future Marley Elementary School in Glen Burnie on Sept. 28 resulted in an estimated $1.5 million in damage and will delay the school's opening. Three adults and two minors were charged with setting multiple fires at the site.

The contractor on the school construction job had hired a private security firm to guard the site. Fire officials said no one was on duty at the time fire crews responded to the blaze, which was reported shortly before 3 a.m.

Neither the construction firm nor county police would say whether an off-duty officer working for the firm was supposed to be guarding the property that night. But in a statement last week, Anne Arundel County Police Chief P. Thomas Shanahan said, "I have directed that an investigation be initiated to determine if activities at Marley Elementary School involving secondary employment were within established policies and procedures of the police department."

Bingo jobs off the list

The Anne Arundel County Ethics Commission issued a ruling Sept. 28 that added bingo parlors to the list of businesses for which officers are not permitted to moonlight. Anne Arundel and Calvert are the only Maryland counties that permit commercial bingo halls.

According to the commission, local bingo halls employ nearly 10 percent of the officers working off-duty shifts, or what police call "secondary" employment.

The commission said it was concerned about the concentration of officers working at an individual business, such as one of the county's busy commercial bingo halls, because it could lead the public to worry about preferential treatment.

Also, the commission expressed concern about other possible conflicts of interest.

"It would not be inconceivable that a business that employs 10 or more police officers would expect to see frequent police patrols in the vicinity. That same business might anticipate that a call to 911 might elicit a faster response than a call from a business that hires private security," the commission wrote.

The decision comes at a time when outside employment has grown into a significant source of income for many officers nationwide, including at least a third of the 667-officer Anne Arundel County police force.

As a result of the ban on bingo hall work, Shanahan said he will direct the two dozen officers working at bingo establishments to stop in the coming weeks, according to O'Brien Atkinson, Anne Arundel County Fraternal Order of Police president. Shanahan was unavailable for comment Friday.

"I think the officers are very disappointed. The people affected most by this are going to be the [ones at] bingo halls," Atkinson said. "You're hurting the officers in their pockets, and you're hurting the community where it hurts the most, and that's their safety."

Matter of trust

For Atkinson, a county officer, it comes down to trust.

"The concern is that a police officer might forget who he's working for. But you're talking about people who deal with large sums of money ... and drugs [in the line of duty]. The temptation is out there every day. I believe if you can't trust a police officer to work at a bingo or at a bar, where can you trust them to work?" Atkinson said.

By policy, officers carry the prestige and authority of the job 24 hours a day, even when they are not on duty. Officers are obligated to act if they see the law being broken when they are not at work.

Secondary jobs can create real or perceived conflicts of interest. Negligence and misconduct on the part of officers while on those jobs could result in lawsuits against the department.

"There are legal issues associated with secondary employment. Municipalities can be subject to liabilities for what their officers do or fail to do," said Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation, a nonprofit research and policy group based in Washington.

"There can be a question mark as to the actions taken by the officer, and it could [result in] a serious lawsuit with substantial monetary damages," said Williams.

Officers' guidelines

Anne Arundel's Police Department years ago prohibited its officers from working as bartenders and bouncers. Because police are often called upon to quell disturbances or enforce liquor laws at bars, the department viewed private employment at them as a potential conflict of interest.

The policy also states that officers must ask for permission to work secondary jobs.

The guidelines do not say whether an officer's negligence or misconduct while working an off-duty job could affect his or her status on the force. But police spokesman Sgt. Shawn Urbas said officers found in violation of any regulation face punishments that could range from a written reprimand to termination.

The misconduct of a few should not and will not have an impact on police departments across the country, said Williams, who once headed the Newark, N.J., Police Department.

Police departments "cannot throw a blanket over everybody, because then it sweeps in the guilty with the innocent," said Williams, adding that most officers follow the guidelines set forth by their departments. "The person that breaches the rules, that's the person who has to be dealt with."

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