Ethical doubts raised on bill

State might challenge law allowing off-duty police security work, commission warns

September 02, 2007|By Kimberly Marselas | Kimberly Marselas,Special to The Sun

An ethics panel has warned county officials that a bill allowing uniformed police officers to moonlight in bingo halls and restaurants that serve alcohol could result in a legal challenge from the state.

In an opinion issued Thursday, the Anne Arundel County Ethics Commission upheld its previous opinion that police officers "might be tempted to ignore minor illegal activity by the secondary employer" and argued that a proposal before the County Council "presents issues of conflict of interest that should be carefully examined."

The commission further urged the county to send the bill to the state ethics panel for review before voting on it, cautioning that it could be rejected if it doesn't conform to Maryland's public ethics law.

County Executive John R. Leopold said Friday, however, that he remained "confident in the merits" of the bill and encouraged the council to approve it when it comes up for a vote Tuesday night.

"I think it's fair and equitable for the Police Department and also provides a needed public safety measure by having police presence in these establishments," he said.

Under the previous police chief, county officers worked in restaurants with liquor licenses, despite conflicting ethics commission guidelines. Following new advice from the ethics commission, Police Chief James Teare Sr., who took over in December, moved to prohibit such employment starting in July.

But before that took effect, a veteran officer sued the chief, county government and the ethics commission, saying that scores of officers work in department-approved private security positions in places where alcohol is served.

The bill in question was submitted at Leopold's request and has four co-sponsors on the seven-member council. It is supported by the county's Fraternal Order of Police lodge.

In an e-mail sent to constituents Friday, one of the co-sponsors, Joshua Cohen of Eastport, defended the bill. He wrote that this kind of secondary employment "provides a quadruple benefit: First, it enhances public safety by putting more unformed officers out into the community; second, it accomplishes this without requiring taxpayer dollars; third, it provides business owners with well-trained personnel to enhance security and safety at their establishments; and fourth, it provides a reasonable way for police officers to earn additional income."

The ethics commission office was closed Friday, and Executive Director Betsy Dawson could not be reached for comment. Chairman Christopher Rizek said he "would let the report speak for itself."

In its letter to Leopold and council members, the commission emphasized that state law requires local jurisdictions to prohibit employment "with an entity that is subject directly to the regulatory or contract authority of the official or employee."

The commission also argued that allowing only police officers to work for those they regulate would create an unnecessary exemption from rules that apply to all county employees.

"Special carve-outs from the ethics law should not be created for the benefit of politically-powerful constituencies," the opinion reads. "In the long term, that is a recipe for undermining the fairness and credibility of the ethics law."

Union President O'Brien Atkinson said the opinion lacked "common sense" and added that officers are insulted by the insinuation that they may look the other way while crimes are committed.

"That's ludicrous," he said. "Police officers know our primary and sole responsibility is to the citizens of Anne Arundel County, whether we're on duty or not."

While the opinion said that police could work a variety of second jobs in retail, construction, landscaping or other industries that do not conflict with their county positions, Atkinson said it is logical for officers to put their police training and expertise to work in similar jobs if they need extra income.

"Police officers' secondary employment provides security, and it provides public service beyond bagging groceries," he said. "[Dawson] doesn't recognize that police are different and we provide different services."

As an alternative to moonlighting, the commission suggested the Police Department set up a system that lets businesses contract police services through the department rather than individual officers. The opinion said this could minimize chances for a conflict of interest because officers could rotate through locations. Atkinson said a Police Department committee on secondary employment did not consider the idea feasible.

He was also concerned that the commission "randomly" highlighted secondary employment policies from other jurisdictions, including Baltimore City and Baltimore and Howard counties, that prohibit police offices from moonlighting at establishments that serve alcohol. He said other departments -- including Prince George's County and Maryland State Police -- allow their officers to do such work after hours.

Atkinson plans to attend Tuesday night's meeting and hopes the council will pass the bill without sending it for state review first. A delay would be problematic because of the chief's ban and the officer's lawsuit -- both of which are on hold.

County Attorney Jonathan Hodgson said there was no reason to ask for state approval or fear a later challenge because precedent has already been set elsewhere.

"I believe this legislation is consistent with state law," he said.

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