Prince George's police chief appoints major to probe off-duty 'culture'

Jack B. Johnson, Prince George's County's executive, was arrested Nov. 12 as federal investigators executed search warrants at the County Administration Building. His wife, Leslie Johnson, was also arrested. Each was charged with evidence tempering and destroying evidence.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 23, 2010; 10:22 PM

Interim Prince George's Police Chief Mark Magaw has appointed a major whose sole job is to examine how the department handles off-duty employment, part of an effort to end practices that contributed to the November indictment of three officers in a federal corruption case.

"Part time," as officers call it, has become so ingrained in the fabric of the Prince George's County Police Department that some top commanders refer to it as a "culture." Even officers of such high rank as major are known to work off-duty jobs guarding apartment complexes and shopping centers or coordinating the schedules of subordinates who do the same.

In a county full of sprawling shopping centers and crammed, garden-style apartment complexes, there is undoubtedly a demand for extra officers walking the streets. Some business owners and apartment managers are willing to pay as much as $50 an hour to have an off-duty officer standing guard.

But when three Prince George's officers - including two who allegedly helped their boss at a liquor store smuggle black-market cigarettes and booze - were indicted in federal court last month, officials were forced to take a hard look at the system.

"We have no choice," said Maj. Andrew Ellis, the department's public affairs commander.

The Prince George's department has the least restrictive policy on part-time work among comparable agencies in the Washington area. Its officers can work in places where alcohol is the primary business, unlike their counterparts in the District and Fairfax and Montgomery counties. There are no rank restrictions, unlike in the District and Fairfax.

And officers themselves can broker part-time assignments and schedule other officers to work it - a practice that is either explicitly prohibited or, by virtue of the system, nonexistent in Fairfax, the District and Montgomery.

Maj. David Morris, commander of the new Office of Secondary Employment in Prince George's, said his first goal will be to fix the policy. His office is already filled with stacks of rules from departments from Las Vegas to Florida. The regulations in Prince George's are "lacking" by comparison, he said, but some changes could be easy and immediate.

Morris said he would like to see all officers who are working part time log on to the department's computer-aided dispatch system during their assignment. That simple step would help dispatchers and district commanders keep track of who is working where.

It also would keep a computerized log of the information. Currently, officers working off duty are simply required to call in to the department's operations center, where their information is recorded on a paper log.

Morris said he also would like to see specific training about off-duty work. Sometimes, Morris said, officers develop more loyalty to the businesses that hire them than to the police department, enforcing such things as bars' dress codes. Training, he said, would help remind officers that even when not on duty, they are still Prince George's police officers.

Other changes, however, might face more resistance. Morris said he will explore the idea of restricting which part-time jobs high-ranking officers can work "relative to their particular assignments."

The union and the commanders themselves probably will fight that change, although Morris said he would make his own position the first to be prohibited from working part time.

Morris said he would also explore restrictions on officers working at bars, clubs and liquor stores. Banning that practice, however, might be counterproductive if on-duty officers were pulled away from regular patrols to handle calls at those businesses, he said.

Vince Canales, president of the county's Fraternal Order of Police, said he did not see a need for widespread changes to the department's secondary employment policy.

He said it was more important for commanders to enforce the rules already on the books, even if that requires random inspections.

"I don't think we need to go look at reinventing the wheel just yet," he said. "I think the department may be treading onto tricky ground if they start dictating where individuals may work part time."

Business owners, too, are likely to resist wholesale, restrictive changes to the way officers work part time, said Eric Pickens, spokesman for the Le Pearl/MSG restaurant and ballroom. He said having county police cruisers outside a nightclub is a strong deterrent for those who might act violently - even more so than a private security firm.

"When they do not see that county car or that state trooper's car . . . they know the difference," he said.

It remains to be seen whether the department has the political will to make any substantive changes. In March 2009, then-police chief Roberto Hylton initiated a review of part-time employment in response to a string of deadly fights at bars where officers were working off duty.

A committee produced recommendations, but they fell by the wayside. Some privately wonder whether the same will happen to Morris's office.

Morris said that with a new county executive and a new police chief, he thinks he will have "absolute latitude" to recommend changes and that those changes eventually will be implemented. He said that some of the best policies he has reviewed have been created after a scandal and that he hopes Prince George's will be no different.

"It's a new administration," Morris said. "I have absolutely no doubt that we will see changes to our policy."

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