Concerned that officers are being drawn into an escalating number of violent incidents, Baltimore plans to prohibit police from working off-duty jobs outside bars, clubs and other businesses with liquor licenses, a move that has frustrated the officers' union, business owners and some city officials.
The change comes as Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III and Mayor Sheila Dixon have challenged troubled businesses to provide better security, and it will take effect just weeks after police launched a significant crackdown on overtime amid budget constraints. Many officers work such jobs to supplement their incomes by thousands of dollars, and the security details add numerous officers to the streets at peak hours, paid entirely out of business owners' pockets.
But Bealefeld says the business owners rely too much on the officers and not enough on private security. Long-standing rules prohibit police from working inside businesses where alcohol is served, and Bealefeld worries the current arrangement leaves the off-duty officers to handle situations that have already gotten out of control.
"We got into this notion that it made more sense to hire off-duty cops because you'd have more cops all over the city, and ostensibly the city would be safer," Bealefeld said. "It's just not so. What's happened is that the businesses have transferred their responsibility onto the Police Department ... and that's not a responsibility or a liability I'm willing to assume."
Last year, off-duty officers working overtime security details killed armed men outside the South Baltimore hot spot Club Mate and inside a downtown parking garage. Last week, the city approved a $50,000 payout to an Edgewater man who accused six off-duty officers of beating him outside the Power Plant Live area.
And in late September, a 21-year-old Towson University student was beaten into a coma at the Iguana Cantina, which typically employs a half-dozen officers outside on busy nights.
"When people wind up in a coma in a club that I have cops working secondary at and no one knows anything, or cops are throwing unruly, drunken, disorderly, combative, violent patrons out on the street, only for them to shoot and stab and kill each other, is unacceptable," Bealefeld said. "I have a simple answer: My cops won't work at businesses that sell alcohol."
City officials say they are experimenting over the next several weekends with different deployment options in the Market Place area, a high concentration of bars located in the Central District. The new plan, borrowing elements from Washington and Boston, would likely involve asking business owners to pool money to pay for extra police that would not be tethered to a specific club.
The program could potentially expand to Fells Point, Canton and Federal Hill, officials say. But until then, union President Robert Cherry worries that the added burden of regulating hoards of bar patrons will create an "enormous strain on already depleted" patrols in the department's Southern and Southeastern districts.
Across the country, police departments have varying views on the issue. Officers are banned from such details in cities such as New York and Los Angeles, but it's allowed in some form in many others.
Under Baltimore's current rules, businesses can apply to the police commissioner for uniformed details outside their establishments. The department receives the money from the businesses and selects the officers who will work the details, keeping the staffing random and the pay at arm's length. Officers can also work plainclothes security outside businesses if approved by the commissioner.
"It's not coming out of the city budget - it's private funding for something that benefits taxpayers," Cherry said.
Though officers are working for private businesses, the Police Department often faces liability issues and lawsuits when things go awry. Millennium Security Consulting Group, a security company run by Lt. John Paradise that hires off-duty police, has been sued several times, with the city often named as a co-defendant. Paradise declined to comment while the city rule change is pending.
The department has maintained that officers face a conflict of interest when asked to police an establishment whose owner is paying them. Bealefeld said he is worried about the potential for "an enormous amount of corruptibility, from something as simple as letting an 18-year-old young lady go in a club who shouldn't be there, to turning a blind eye and not taking aggressive action on criminal activity."