Most police departments across the nation allow their officers to work as private security guards. That policy comes with exactly as many problems as you might think: Though you certainly get added muscle for your money, cops working private security details have been accused for years of favoring establishments that pay them, arresting people needlessly, and engaging in less-than-ethical behavior while working at the bars, clubs, and nightlife spots that regularly hire off-duty officers to beef up security. In 2011, for example, the U.S. Department of Justice alleged the New Orleans Police Department's off-duty security program was rotten with corruption and created a two-tier system in which rich landowners were able to pay cops to do their bidding.
For years, critics have warned that Miami-area cops continue to get into trouble while working security in bars and clubs in the Magic City's already chaotic nightlife scene. But the public has not quite known how frequently off-duty officers find themselves in trouble until today. In a scathing report this morning, the City of Miami Civilian Investigative Panel (CIP), a board of Miami residents that investigates police issues, says it found at least 40 alleged misconduct incidents occurred during off-duty assignments between 2017 and 2018. Among the incidents, the CIP found allegations of everything from poor record-keeping to cops arresting people who had pissed off bar owners — all the way to claims of excessive force and violence. The CIP also found that cops who had been suspended were still allowed to work off-duty assignments and continue to get paid.
"For the past two years, Panel members noticed a disturbing pattern emerge and asked our staff to research incidents involving 'extra duty' assignments," the report reads. The CIP noted that 30 percent of the alleged incidents occurred at establishments that served alcohol, and that 15 percent of the complaints alleged that cops working in Miami's downtown club district had committed misconduct. (NBC Miami first reported on a draft version of the report last month.)
"MPD officers are prohibited from working at bars and nightclubs but may work at premises which are primarily restaurants and serve alcohol," the report states. "Establishments skirt the regulation by hiring officers to work at adjacent parking lots."
Reached via text message, Chief Jorge Colina told New Times he agreed with most of the report's findings and has already started working to make changes at the department.
"We've met with several vendors over the last three months or so which would help or mitigate many of the issues," he wrote.
This is far from the first time Miami cops have been criticized for off-duty issues. In 2013, New Times warned that MPD officers seemed to be harassing newly established Wynwood bars as a favor to the downtown clubs that pay Miami cops for security. Just this year, the CIP began investigating claims that Capt. Javier Ortiz, MPD's former union boss and constantly controversial cop, had been working off- and on-duty details at the same time, in violation of department rules.
Though officers are technically barred from working at establishments that serve booze only, Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo this year briefly proposed banning cops from working at any establishment that holds a liquor license. The move was odd — Carollo is a staunch Republican who typically enjoyed support from law enforcement officers, but he instead sparked a fight with the Miami Fraternal Order of Police, and many of his critics speculated he was trying to make life difficult for a local bar owner who had angered Carollo by supporting another commission candidate.
The report lists scores of troubling incidents: In 2017, a cop allegedly threatened to arrest a woman who called in noise complaints to a bar that had hired him to work private security. In a recorded incident that NBC highlighted in September, off-duty cops were filmed standing in a circle while an exotic dancer twerked on the hood of a police car in front of them. The CIP also listed two cases in which Miami cops failed to record they were working off-duty. In one case, the CIP noted a cop worked one 13.5-hour off-duty detail at a Coca-Cola commercial shoot and then immediately worked a ten-hour police shift, in apparent violation of department rules.
Off-duty cops have also been violent. In 2018, one woman attending Ultra Music Festival downtown said a group of four off-duty Miami cops fractured her elbow while kicking her out of the event.
Yet the most worrying allegation appears to be that MPD supervisors appear to be turning a blind eye to off-duty misconduct. For example, Miami cops are banned from working more than 36 hours of off-duty security work per week and no more than 16 hours in a 24-hour period. But the CIP found that not a single cop in 2017 or 2018 was investigated for exceeding the work limit.
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When internal investigators have reviewed off-duty conduct, many cops have exhibited contempt for them. The CIP says one "high-ranking" commander had received more than 12 complaints about his off-duty conduct but was hostile to investigators when they began examining the claims. The report states:
In August 2018, a high-ranking MPD commander was working extra duty and left his assignment to perform a "go-by" and check on a fellow officer who already had assistance during a traffic stop. The motorist was being issued tickets and was about to leave when the commander approached his vehicle and saw him recording the interaction with his cellular camera. The commander said, "Everything could've went so smooth, but you had to start recording..." The commander claimed he smelled marijuana, detained the man and had another officer sign the arrest affidavit for marijuana residue after waiting for confirmation from a police canine. The commander was the subject of more than one dozen citizen complaints relating to his extra duty and/or off duty conduct during the study period. In his statement to internal affairs, he denied taking a photograph of a passenger's identification, "But I did take note that she works for the University of Miami medical campus and I run police services at the University of Miami."
The CIP issues 18 recommendations to overhaul MPD's off-duty program, including cutting the maximum number of weekly overtime hours to 30. The report does not ask MPD to stop allowing its cops to work off-duty details. But the panel says the department needs to revamp the way it administers extra shifts to prevent further problems. For example, MPD administers off-duty work through job coordinators, and cops can easily cozy up to or even bribe those coordinators to score more favorable shifts, the CIP says. It suggests the department administer jobs through a third-party vendor and buy computer software to track in real time where officers are working.
If things don't improve, the report warns that "civil liability to the City of Miami for officer conduct at their secondary and/or extra duty employment is a significant concern for the Panel."