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Minneapolis City Council votes for review of off-duty police contracts

The effort to review off-duty contracts comes more than three years after an audit found issues with them, including a decentralized system where hours are not formally tracked.

Authored by Ward 2 Council Member Robin Wonsley, the directive will review how off-duty work contracts are obtained, the current rates at which officers work, as well as procedures for transparency and accountability.
Authored by Ward 2 Council Member Robin Wonsley, the directive will review how off-duty work contracts are obtained, the current rates at which officers work, as well as procedures for transparency and accountability.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

The Minneapolis City Council on Friday voted to review how the city’s police department allows its officers to do off-duty work more than three years after an audit by the city found issues in how the department tracked the extra hours worked. 

The Minneapolis Police Department’s off-duty police work system allows businesses and organizations like nightclubs, banks, stores or neighborhoods hosting events to hire an officer to provide security while in full uniform and a squad car.

But the system itself — how many hours are worked by officers and how much the services cost — remains a mystery, and concerns from residents and city officials around transparency have prompted the council to take a second look.

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Examining off-duty work

Authored by Ward 2 Council Member Robin Wonsley, the directive will review how off-duty work contracts are obtained, the current rates at which officers work, as well as procedures for transparency and accountability. It’ll also examine impacts to city staffing and racial equity in policing citywide.

“One of the biggest issues is that there is this cloak … we don’t know the answers to these questions and I don’t think they’re going to magically appear,” said Council President Andrea Jenkins before the unanimous vote. “We need to understand what is going on with overtime, how it’s being processed, who is accessing it, (and) how much money they are making.”

Wonsley said the main goals of the directive are to pick up where the 2019 audit left off and respond to current concerns about the program that she has heard from her constituents. 

The effort comes more than three years after a 2019 audit, led by current Council Vice President Linea Palmisano, of MPD’s off-duty work policies and procedures. The practice received renewed scrutiny due to increased overtime costs during the Super Bowl in 2018, as well after then-MPD officer Mohamed Noor, who had just come off a seven hour off-duty shift at a bank, fatally shot Justine Ruszczyk Damond in the alley behind her home.

The audit found that off-duty work shifts and hours worked are not formally tracked, working as a decentralized system where businesses and organizations contact individual officers or precincts directly, and only a supervisor’s approval is needed for the officer to take on the shift. The report outlined issues with the city’s off-duty work system that included requirements for work not being strong enough, no oversight of whether the department is following those requirements, and a lack of controls on how squad cars are used for off-duty work.

MPD has experienced staffing challenges since 2020 when hundreds of officers left the department due to resignations, retirements and disability leaves following George Floyd’s murder by then-MPD officer Derek Chauvin. 

As that exodus coincided with increases in crime, entities like housing providers and business owners have tried to fill the gaps with off-duty police work. But, she said, the service is becoming increasingly unaffordable, and they feel as if they’re paying twice for what should be a public service.

“In a way, it feels like a double tax because these are constituents that are not only paying taxes that go into our public safety system … but now they’re saying that because of shortcomings within that system, they’re having to pay another fee through these off-duty contracts,” Wonsley said in an interview. “We heard those concerns and we decided that a legislative directive would be appropriate for us to get an assessment of the current landscape of our off-duty program.”

The city assumes liability for police while they do off-duty work, as well as the cost of the use of squad cars and other city equipment. To get a more comprehensive look at how much the program costs the city, the directive from the council approved last week would also look at the cost associated with the use of city equipment by officers while doing off-duty work.

Wonsley said they will examine how other cities do their programs, but the city may end up charging an administrative fee to make up that cost.

“Not only are officers charging their hourly rates, when you factor in the additional cost that comes through them being able to access equipment, uniforms, cars through the city of Minneapolis to do this, does that figure go up? I would assume so.”

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Off-duty concerns not limited to Minneapolis

Other large U.S. cities have had issues with administering and keeping track of off-duty police contracts, which have a profound impact on the department’s official police work. 

In the Department of Justice’s 2010 pattern-or-practice investigation into the New Orleans Police Department, federal investigators found that NOPD was operating a poorly documented off-duty work system that permeated the whole department, with nearly 70% of their officers signing up for overtime work. Off-duty work contributed to the police department’s dysfunction by facilitating corruption and abuse, adding to officer fatigue, promoting inequitable policing and draining the department’s finances despite being touted as a source of extra revenue, according to the DOJ report.

Officers would leave in the middle of investigations so as not to be late to their off-duty assignment, threaten businesses with no police presence unless they paid exorbitant rates, and experience exhaustion and sleep deprivation due to no oversight on hours worked, the report found. The higher-ups giving out off-duty  hours would wield their power to decide who works where and for how much to play favorites or take a cut from the officers’ compensation, and the city would lose money when officers used city equipment to do those jobs, including one instance when a police dog fell down an open elevator shaft and died, costing the city $15,000. 

As MPD and the city currently negotiate its own consent decree with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR) — and the DOJ finishes up its own investigation expected later this year — citizens are urging state and federal officials to include off-duty work in the ensuing consent decree.

“It’s something we’ve emphasized to the DOJ,” said Michelle Gross, president of local group Communities United Against Police Brutality. “They understand and know that it’s a problem because they’ve seen it in other cities, so it’s not a surprise to them that we’ve said that this off-duty situation needs to be addressed.”

Gross, whose group has reached out to federal investigators several times since the start of the investigation, said she would like to see a centralized off-duty work system where officers are not paid individually but those who seek the services bill the department instead. That way, hours worked and compensation would be tracked by the city and available to the public, and the earnings officers receive would be taxed as well. 

“While an audit is a great first step, what we have to do is actually fix the problem: bring everything in-house, have it tracked through human resources and through the police department, have the assignments given out in an equitable manner, and have all the payments come through payroll,” she said. “We already went down this road in 2019, and what we learned was that there wasn’t enough information.”