Off-duty employment programs: What agencies don’t know will hurt them
By Brian Manley
Extra jobs are common among cops, but they can be risky in more ways than one. Leaders must consider the following liabilities if they want to avoid making the news
Thousands of officers across the nation work supplemental off-duty assignments. Much like full-time policing, secondary employment carries potential risk and liability. It only takes a single off-duty mistake to land an officer in the news. Negative press not only misrepresents the nature of off-duty jobs and tarnishes reputations, but it also diminishes trust in police officers and the jurisdictions that employ them. Often, off-duty programs need big changes, including the addition of third-party administrative assistance with guaranteed insurance coverage.
Unfortunately, off-duty work policies are often a blind spot for police leaders. Many administrators are unaware of the physical, legal and liability dangers officers may bring upon themselves and their agency until it’s too late. The number of agencies making headlines due to issues arising from off-duty programs is increasing at an alarming pace. An agency never knows when failure to track off-duty jobs will become a headache or generate negative press.
Significant risks of off-duty employment include double-dipping, unfair job distribution, officer fatigue, injuries, or even officer death. Let’s dive into some of these common reasons officers make the news for working off-duty. Police leaders must be aware of these dangers to avoid missteps or mitigate a worst-case scenario.
Unfortunately, double-dipping is a common issue. In 2019, it came out that officers in Indiana received both a paycheck from the police department and a second paycheck from a local hospital where they reported working off-duty during the same hours. When confronted, the officers were required to reimburse what the city had paid them for those hours, plus over $2,500 each for the cost of the investigation .
This is just one situation that highlights issues caused by double-dipping or collecting pay for “working” duty and off-duty jobs simultaneously. Most agencies have little to no communication between off-duty and on-duty scheduling systems, making it easy to claim scheduled hours for two shifts at one time. This becomes easy fodder for the morning news.
Many officers either fail to realize the liability they’re implicitly accepting when working off duty, or they mistakenly think their department or city will cover them if anything unexpected were to happen. However, many departments require private companies to submit “Hold Harmless” agreements. These agreements ensure that the department or municipality isn’t held accountable and can step away unfazed in most scenarios, placing liability squarely on the officer’s shoulders. Agencies with off-duty programs often need to partner with a third-party management company to decrease risks for their officers.
In 2021, a police officer made headlines when his off-duty work resulted in a state supreme court ruling. A local day center hired him at $40 per hour to check visitors’ personal belongings for weapons, drugs and alcohol. Despite successfully screening every other individual, one perpetrator managed to smuggle in a weapon that was used to stab someone. The victim sued the officer, who expected the city to provide his legal defense. The officer believed he was entitled to this defense since the off-duty work involved responsibilities like those he exercised on duty, including making an arrest. The case went to the state supreme court where justices denied the officer a city defense, stating that off-duty work was not covered under the circumstances .
When officers sign up for off-duty work, they often do not realize they face heightened liability with limited legal protections. A comfortable secondary job can quickly become a storm of negativity and a financial burden.
Unfortunately, off-duty injuries are handled similarly to liability exposure. Many officers incorrectly assume that off-duty jobs afford them the same insurance that protects them while on duty. In reality, most off-duty jobs offer little to no coverage to protect officers from harm. Some agencies may require a Certificate of Insurance (COI) from off-duty employers, but COIs do little in providing actual protection and can easily be falsified. Most COIs provide insufficient coverage for off-duty work, leaving officers the burden of covering their injuries.
What’s more, if an officer should lose his life and is not insured while working off-duty, his family may not receive financial reparation for losing their loved one. Unfortunately, several off-duty work-related deaths have occurred throughout Arizona, Texas and other states in the past few months. When these types of instances occur, there is usually a discrepancy between liability coverage, insurance coverage, the color of law and the appropriate application of these policies. Off-duty programs should be an asset for the officers and the community, not a risk.
A police officer worked off-duty from 2015 to 2017, earning over $81,000. However, she only claimed approximately $20,000 when filing taxes. In February 2020, the officer pled guilty to submitting false tax returns that underreported her off-duty earnings. She was required to pay the IRS $24,000 in restitution .
In another case, a police captain received his pay “off the books” for his off-duty security job at a university. This meant records of his off-duty hours did not exist in the city’s payroll, creating confusion about how much he worked and how much he was paid . Scenarios like this make it difficult for cities to track their officers’ off-duty earnings and the fees officers owe the city. This ability to fly under the radar creates opportunities for officers to underreport their earnings and avoid reimbursing the city for fees owed. This of course garners negative media attention once discovered.
Another way officers make headlines is by creating timecards for “ghost” off-duty assignments. Between 2014 and 2016, a police officer was one of at least 12 city cops to defraud the government of thousands of dollars for shifts they either didn’t work or didn’t finish. This not only tarnishes citizens’ trust in the involved officers but in the entire system .
To augment their take-home salaries, many officers end up working an excessive amount between their regular job and off-duty work. This issue is exacerbated when agencies fail to properly track off-duty hours. Too much work often leads to diminished wellness and performance among officers.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (2010) shows that among all occupations, law enforcement has one of the highest levels of injury and illness, part of which can be attributed to excessive work hours. According to research by Perry Lyle, Ph.D., staying awake for more than 19 hours is akin to having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of more than .05. In most states, the legal level for driving is .08. However, after 24 hours without sleep, BAC levels rise to 0.10. Officers who work that long may have their skills negatively impacted to the same extent as drunk drivers. The headlines prove it.
In 2018, a police officer made the news when she worked a total of 15 hours one night between regular and off-duty jobs. When she returned home, she got off on the wrong floor of her apartment building and entered a unit she thought was hers. When she encountered the tenant, she believed him to be an intruder and fatally shot him. Prosecutors made the case that her decision-making ability was affected by working an excessive number of hours .
SOLVING OFF-DUTY POLICY BLIND SPOTS
Off-duty employment is important for law enforcement agencies, police officers and local businesses. Off-duty work strengthens bonds between local businesses and agencies while allowing officers to gain extra income. According to recent major city audits, most problems with off-duty employment are due to one simple and completely avoidable blind spot: failure to establish a centrally administered program that ensures transparency, oversight, and accountability for off-duty assignments.
Tackling all tasks related to off-duty programs is something most law enforcement leaders do not have the time or the resources to do. Managing inbound service requests, scheduling jobs, recording time and attendance, and monitoring payroll/invoicing are just a few administrative functions that can cause departmental headaches. But there are several ways agencies small and large can approach their off-duty strategy.
One option is to eliminate off-duty programs altogether and not allow officers to work second jobs. This action is not advisable because it eliminates the opportunity for privately owned businesses to increase their security, which in turn increases the public’s sense of security. Banning second jobs also limits officers’ ability to supplement their income.
Another option is to designate an in-house procedure to handle scheduling, invoicing, payroll and insurance. While this may be viable for some agencies, it requires a significant amount of time and resources. Agencies should expect to pay for dedicated staff to supervise the overall operation of an off-duty program. This can be costly.
If providing staff to run an entire off-duty program is too pricey, software can be a more economical option. Multiple tools can distribute job notifications, stamp attendance and show the location of each officer working an off-duty assignment. However, agencies must be aware of the associated costs. There will still be a need for an in-house program administrator, supervision and related expenses to run the program, plus unmitigated liability exposure.
The best option may be to hire a third-party, all-inclusive administrator to manage the off-duty program at no cost to the agency or officers. A third-party company can provide a systematic, customer service-oriented plan to manage scheduling, payroll, reporting, workers’ compensation and liability insurance in line with the current agency policies and procedures. Some agencies are hesitant to consider this approach because they think they are giving up control of their program. In fact, off-duty service providers incorporate all the agency’s existing policies to ensure officers’ full adherence while giving agencies optimal transparency, accountability, and oversight of their off-duty program.
No matter which option agencies choose, one thing is clear when it comes to an off-duty work solution: policies need to be developed to prevent dangerous blind spots from subjecting your agency to negative headlines and public scrutiny. Agencies would be wise to make managing their off-duty program a priority sooner rather than later.
1. Kenney K. City of Columbus paid officers thousands while they worked at hospital, reports show. WRTV Indianapolis.
2. Chhith A. Minnesota Supreme Court says off-duty St. Paul cop not entitled to city defense. Star Tribune.
3. Department of Justice. Cincinnati police officer pleads guilty to failing to claim off-duty detail cash earnings on her tax returns.
4. Iannelli J. Miami cops make nearly $20 million a year in shady overtime security jobs. Miami New Times.
5. 12th Jersey City officer pleads guilty in off-duty jobs scam. Associated Press.
6. Tsiaperas T, Wilonsky R. Dallas cops are working too much at off-duty jobs, and city lacks controls to prevent it, audit says. The Dallas Morning News.