One security service that many police departments offer, but that often goes unnoticed, is off-duty work.
Officers direct traffic near construction sites. They greet people coming in and out of bars. They walk the Berglund Center’s concourse during concerts.
They offer additional security at stores, serving as a deterrent to would-be thieves. Last month, when someone photographed a uniformed Roanoke officer outside Wal-Mart on Dale Avenue Southeast apparently sleeping in his patrol car and posted it on Facebook, people chimed in with a range of responses. Some expressed sympathy that officers work long hours, others questioned whether he was on duty — and, if not, what were the policies on uniforms and vehicles?
The Roanoke Police Department has said the officer was working off duty at Wal-Mart but wouldn’t answer additional questions related to the incident, citing it as a personnel matter. Lt. Jeffrey Newman said people often don’t notice off-duty officers because “much of it goes off without a hitch.” He said officers put in thousands of hours of off-duty and extra-duty work a year, with assignments nearly every day. Extra-duty employment is when an officer is hired to work public events, such as school basketball or football games or the upcoming Blue Ridge Marathon. Private entities hire officers to work in an off-duty capacity.
“We’re increasing public safety and providing quality customer service to many businesses, houses of worship and events that hire us,” Newman said.
Newman said officers are hired not just for theft prevention, but also when businesses are dealing with an employee being harassed, or threats of violence.
Newman said officers, whether working on or off duty, are bound by department policies and procedures. Any incidents that occur off duty are reviewed against those policies.
Sleeping on the job, for example, is prohibited, according to the department’s fitness for duty policy.
Any issues pertaining to whether the city’s liability insurance is applied are also reviewed after considering the circumstances of the incident, Newman said. Officers can be hired for $43 an hour and supervisors for $48. A request made less than 48 hours before the service is needed costs $59 an hour, according to the city’s online request form. Employers can request an officer be in uniform or not in uniform, and according to policy, those in uniform are required to wear a body camera. The use of a police vehicle is approved on a case-by-case basis considering the needs of the assignment and availability of vehicles.
“Off duty is a tremendous blessing to many of our officers financially, because let’s face it, police officers are not exactly paid the best,” Newman said. Seth Stoughton, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law and a former police officer, said the practice deserves closer examination to develop standard best practices. He published a draft of a paper last year reviewing responses to survey questions he received from 162 law enforcement agencies.
“I was surprised by the sheer variation in policies,” he said. “Agencies are all over the place in how they regulate moonlighting.” Some agencies require uniforms while working off duty, while some don’t or don’t specify in their policies, he found. Agencies also varied on whether they tracked the number of hours officers work for private employers. Locally, for example, while Roanoke County and Salem’s policies limit the number of hours an officer can work off duty in a week, Roanoke’s policy does not.
Straight Street, a downtown Roanoke ministry that provides services to children and teens, frequently hires off-duty officers for certain events, said its director, Keith Farmer.
“It means a lot to have officers there for security, but also in a friendly way for the kids,” Farmer said. “It’s been a huge blessing to have them.”