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HomeUncategorizedSmall business owners say they're pressured to hire off-duty cops for security

Small business owners say they’re pressured to hire off-duty cops for security

When Maya Santamaria was opening a Minneapolis club in 2003, a city worker handed her a card for a Minneapolis police officer and said, “You’re going to work with this guy.”

To get a business license, a licensing employee told her she had to hire a certain number of off-duty Minneapolis police officers to provide security.

Why?

“Because they’re racist and we’re Mexican,” Santamaria said. “They didn’t want to let Mexicans have nightclubs.”

That’s her conclusion after seeing other similar-sized, white-owned venues escape the same mandate.

With over a million dollars invested, Santamaria had little choice. “You gotta do what they say,” she said.

Then, MPD “socked it to me,” she said. She started out paying the officers $40 to $45 an hour, always more than one officer per night. And they didn’t just work one or two hours; they charged a minimum of four hours no matter how many they actually worked, she said. The pay gradually increased to nearly $60 an hour.

“I spent hundreds of thousands of dollars,” she said. “There were many years I wasn’t making it, and they didn’t give a damn.”

Santamaria was later required to come up with security plans outlining the number of officers needed per night. The officers insisted on getting paid cash, she said. She feared if she didn’t oblige, she’d lose her license.

Eventually, another officer helped schedule off-duty work: Derek Chauvin. He worked security at her club for 17 years.

“They were in charge and everybody had to go through them,” she said.

El Nuevo Rodeo became Minnesota’s largest Latino concert venue, and while there were a few brawls, “We never were a problem property,” Santamaria said.

MPD officers would usually sit in their squad cars, fully uniformed, and do crossword puzzles or chat with their girlfriends or spouses. Sometimes they’d leave to go help MPD with calls.

“They were gone half the time,” Santamaria said. “They were on my payroll but they were gone.”

She sold the club in 2019. When Santamaria saw Chauvin pinning George Floyd on the pavement in the video that shocked the world, she recognized both, because Floyd worked as a bouncer inside the club in 2019. 

El Nuevo Rodeo burned to the ground during the subsequent riots.

Santamaria’s allegations about MPD off-duty work are echoed by the experiences of other business owners, documented in government reports and even remarked upon by the city’s new police chief, Brian O’Hara. He said the system is “ripe for corruption,” citing a federal investigation in Jersey City, where a dozen cops were arrested due to widespread corruption of off-duty work. 

The timing is favorable for more rigorous oversight: MPD is soon to be operating under both state and federal supervision following damning investigative reports about racist policing, and O’Hara is a newish outsider who speaks the rhetoric of reform. 

Changes to off-duty policy face a key obstacle, however: A 1997 court injunction restricts how much the city can manage officers’ side gigs. Given the injunction, the city can only seek major reforms via the collective bargaining process, which means if the city wants to change off-duty policies, it would likely have to give up something in return. 

Here’s how the off-duty work program works: Some businesses — like large nightclubs — are required by the city to have security, which until 2020, sometimes had to be off-duty Minneapolis police officers. 

The city can also require that organizers of large events and businesses plagued with a lot of 911 calls also hire off-duty MPD officers. Businesses may also voluntarily hire off-duty officers for security and traffic control, and negotiate pay and hours directly with officers. 

The city doesn’t keep track of how much officers are working or how much they’re paid, or even have access to the contracts. Off-duty work often pays a lot more — up to hundreds of dollars per hour — than working overtime for MPD. 

Some officers are still paid in cash, increasing the risk of tax evasion. And, several business owners and Minneapolis officials said some small business owners — particularly those owned by immigrants — have been led to believe they must hire MPD officers, or risk getting ghosted by police. 

It was precisely this arrangement that caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice in its 2011 report on the New Orleans Police Department. 

In fact, the MPD off-duty situation has parallels to NOPD before the feds arrived. 

The recent DOJ investigative report about MPD drew only a passing — but still condemnatory — reference to off-duty jobs. The DOJ was looking for racism. Some business owners of color say look no further. 

‘Instead of helping us, they’re hurting us’

Basim Sabri, owner of a Somali mall called Karmel Mall and a Latino mall called Plaza Mexico on Lake Street, said he held a Cinco de Mayo party every year for 27 years to encourage people to come to the area and see that “It really isn’t a war zone, it is a beautiful place.”

For years, they never had police there, and then about a dozen years ago, he said, there was a shooting a few blocks away from the event. The city began requiring him to hire off-duty police. 

“Lake Street has been tremendously damaged, and instead of helping us, they’re hurting us,” said Sabri, who once went to prison for bribing a city council member.

The officer rates have skyrocketed, he said. He pays officers $150 to $160 an hour, and a “scheduler” also charges $15 to $20.

Despite the big payouts, when he calls the police for help, they don’t always respond, Sabri said. About six weeks ago, a man came into his office with a gun and said he was going to shoot someone. They called 911, but the police never came, Sabri said. 

An MPD spokesman said “Going back to July 1, all calls we found relating to guns at Karmel Mall did have a police response, and none of the calls match the details” of Sabri’s account.  

Jonathan Soto, owner of EME Antro night club at Fifth Avenue and Lake Street, hired MPD officers — including Chauvin — to monitor his parking lot for a couple of years, but stopped after Floyd’s murder. 

The officers wanted to be paid in cash, and would sometimes leave to respond to police calls, which benefited the city, he said.

“The city kind of liked that,” Soto said.

The FBI interviewed him after Floyd was killed, asking how much he paid officers.

Other business owners said the officers don’t always respond to problems right under their noses.

Santamaria said the club next to her was tiny but “had to have their own cop,” who she described as an “old guy” who would refuse to help anybody from her club,

After several East African-owned stores on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis were vandalized in September 2019, Capitol Café owner Abdirahman Awad called his friend KB Brown, owner of a north Minneapolis print shop and a member of the Main Street Alliance of Minnesota, a group of progressive business owners.

KB Brown said the detectives were rude and disrespectful to Awad. Awad said MPD later told him he’d have to pay off-duty officers $145 an hour to provide security. He returned the next night and saw almost no police presence despite the alleged hate crime. In his view, MPD was sending a message that the cafe would only get protection if it hired off-duty officers.

“I felt so angry about it,” he said.

Kevin Brown, another member of the Main Street Alliance, said Somali business owners have told him MPD pressured them to hire off-duty officers, but they’re afraid to go public because they’ve been threatened with being “blacklisted” by MPD — or ignored when they call police for help.

“They get to make the rules,” Kevin Brown said.

Not all business owners feel that way, however.

When John Wolf bought his liquor store, Chicago-Lake Liquors, in 2000, he inherited the off-duty officers who did security there and continued hiring them. Some officers preferred to be paid in cash, but he said he didn’t do that. 

One officer scheduled all the shifts, which were 5 p.m. to closing. The cops roved around inside and outside the liquor store and sometimes left to respond to MPD calls — even though Wolf was paying them. Wolf didn’t mind.

“I had really, really good people working here,” said Wolf, who appeared with Donald Trump at an August 2020 campaign stop.

But after Floyd’s murder, he made a business decision to stop hiring the officers because they were “pricey” and “hard to get.”

 “The situation became very complicated after George Floyd,” Wolf said.

Former council member calls off-duty tactics ‘sleazy and illegal’

In the aftermath of Floyd’s killing, MPD went under a microscope, including off-duty work.

Some private businesses and school districts cut ties with the police. Within days, the Minneapolis Orchestra, Minneapolis Institute of Art and iconic club First Avenue said they’d no longer hire them. 

One of the few things the city does keep tabs on is sites for off-duty work, which must be approved. Officers worked off-duty at about 500 sites in 2018, but that number has dropped to about 100 this year. About 200 officers have worked these gigs this year, according to Regulatory Services Director Enrique Velazquez.

In 2020, the Minneapolis City Council stopped requiring off-duty officers at licensed events, and let them hire private security instead. In August 2020, Velazquez told the City Council only four businesses were being required to hire off-duty MPD officers. But some businesses were voluntarily hiring them because they were under the impression they had no choice, he said. Others thought if they hired police officers they would get “some level of preferential treatment,” he said.

Velazquez said this was discussed with Mayor Jacob Frey’s off-duty task force, which was launched in January 2020, met twice, and then dissolved.

Former Minneapolis City Council Member Cam Gordon said small businesses owned by immigrants told him they were led to believe they wouldn’t get police service if they didn’t hire officers. They didn’t want to speak publicly about it, he said, out of fear of retaliation.

Some people of color said they were told if they wanted to get police to respond to 911 calls, they would have to hire the cops for security, and it could cost, say, $800 per night in cash.

That’s “sleazy” and illegal, Gordon said.

Gordon said running a business using city resources — uniforms, guns, squad cars — without city management, should be considered a violation of the city ethics code, even though the city explicitly allows it, even paying insurance for off-duty work.

“It creates this whole system of unaccountability in terms of the money, especially if people are paid under the table in cash,” Gordon said.

A 2019 city audit noted cash payment was preferred by some employers and officers. The audit recommended ending cash payments and putting the city in charge of the program, but like so many other MPD issues, change has been glacial. MPD policy was updated to limit hours — including off-duty gigs — and prioritize overtime over off-duty work. MPD is instituting a new timekeeping system to track off-duty hours.

The city’s insurance liability for officers working side gigs can get expensive: The city was forced to defend Lt. Mike Sauro after he arrested, handcuffed and beat a 21-year-old college student in a kitchen. Sauro was off duty, working at a club on New Year’s Eve in 1991. A jury awarded the victim over $1 million in damages, the largest civil award in a police misconduct case in the city’s history at the time, according to Human Rights Watch.

After that, former Police Chief Robert Olson vowed to limit officers’ off-duty time, saying the city didn’t have the responsibility to make sure private businesses run smoothly. But 28 years later, the off-duty work continues. 

Even amid the fury after Floyd’s police killing, the council made negligible changes to the off-duty program. Off-duty work is part of the police union contract. The Minneapolis Police Federation said during the last negotiation that any change to off-duty work was a non-starter. Now, negotiations are underway again on the next three-year contract. 

City may challenge 1997 injunction that ties its hands on off-duty issues

Weeks after Floyd’s death at the hands of his officers, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo withdrew from labor negotiations, saying the contract would be reviewed with the help of outside experts.

But even as crime spiked, MPD began hemorrhaging officers, and a judge ordered the city to hire more cops to comply with the city charter. Negotiations were suddenly focused on recruiting and retaining cops.

A coalition of police reform groups called Minneapolis for a Better Police Contract formed in 2019 to push city officials to use the police labor contract as a tool for reform.

“Off-duty work is corrupt,” said Stacey Gurian-Sherman, a lawyer on the group’s steering committee. 

The group made 22 recommendations for the contract, including limiting the number of days and hours officers can work, counting overtime and off-duty work. They recommended officers be paid for off-duty work the same way they’re paid for “buyback” work in which neighborhoods or organizations pay for extra patrols. Those officers are paid $107 an hour, but payroll is handled by the city.

Aside from labor negotiations, the group says the City Council could make changes to make off-duty work centralized, fair and not subject to the whims of any one police officer. St. Paul, Duluth, Bloomington and Rochester all have such centralized systems.

In January, the City Council voted to review off-duty work, including how officers get jobs, how much they’re paid and how it affects MPD staffing. 

Council Member Robin Wonsley authored the legislative directive and is working on a policy that would charge businesses fees to recoup city costs, but the city is largely powerless given the 1990s era court injunction against changing the side gigs policy.

The 1997 injunction and settlement came after former Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton tried to put the system under the city’s control. The union argued changes to off-duty must be negotiated as part of the union contract, and the agreement says officers have the right to contract with outside employers. It also says officers aren’t allowed to act as brokers, though police seem to be ignoring the proscription.

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It would be expensive for the city to take over the off-duty program, however, since officers would be paid through the city, at an overtime rate, and the pay would count toward their pension benefit calculation.

Mayor Jacob Frey told the Reformer off-duty work is “one of the more difficult and intractable” issues facing MPD, and the 1997 injunction is a major roadblock to change. 

Asked whether the city might try to get it revoked, he said, “We’re talking.” 

The police contract doesn’t give the city much authority over off-duty work, but ideally the city would have more managerial oversight, Frey said.

“It will be a topic that is covered,” during negotiations, he said. “It would make the process more fair and equitable both to police officers and businesses hiring them. We could better ensure officers aren’t overworked by factoring off-duty shifts into work scheduling. It would also streamline the process.” 

Frey said the city needs its officers working more on-duty, rather than off-duty, which he acknowledges will cost more. In other words, pump up their regular pay so they’re less inclined to take the lucrative off-duty work.

Minneapolis police officers start out making about $73,000 annually, but many are working mega overtime hours due to short staffing, pushing their salaries sky-high; 70% of officers made six figures last year. 

Neither the police union nor MPD responded to multiple requests for comment.

MPD system mirrors New Orleans, before reforms

Many of the concerns about MPD’s off-duty system mirror those federal investigators found in New Orleans when the U.S. Department of Justice found their off-duty work — what they call paid details — facilitated abuse and corruption, contributed to officer fatigue and inequitable policing and was a financial drain on the city.

A vestige of the days when NOPD’s starting pay was among the lowest in the nation, paid details became so enticing — with some cops paid $300 to $500 a night to provide security for professional athletes — that some officers were more committed to the side hustles than their actual jobs.

NOPD Officers would “ghost” work after roll call, leave in the middle of an investigation, and double dip or use sick leave to do details, the DOJ found.

Last summer, the MPD — down 300 officers — struggled to cover shifts. Some officers were doing off-duty shifts rather than overtime for the city. 

Only a dozen cops were patrolling downtown on weekend night shifts. One night, as a police dispatcher tried to find a cop to respond to reports of a man pointing a gun at people, Lt. Kelly O’Rourke, who was in charge of policing the downtown area, pulled into a parking lot where an off-duty officer was sitting in a squad car, monitoring the lot near nightclubs.

The officers make two to four times as much pulling an off-duty shift, so they prefer to do that, O’Rourke said at the time.

The DOJ said MPD’s system undermines supervision of officers because patrol officers manage disbursement of the gigs, deciding who gets the work — including supervisors. That creates a disincentive for supervisors to hold those officers accountable for misconduct, the DOJ said.

In New Orleans, the officers scheduling off-duty work got extra pay from businesses, making up to $200 per week, the DOJ found. MPD officers also get paid for scheduling off-duty officers.

And as in Minneapolis, some New Orleans business owners felt pressured to hire the police.

“Businesses sometimes feel they must pay for details to obtain the police services that should be provided by NOPD as a matter of routine policing,” the DOJ said. “In addition, businesses have no way to hold officers accountable when they do not show up for their contracted detail or perform poorly while on detail.”

In 2010, New Orleans banned cash payments and began centralizing the system, with mixed results.

If the city of Minneapolis fails to reform off-duty work, Gurian-Sherman, the lawyer pushing for MPD reforms, hopes the DOJ forces its hand.

“This is happening in full view,” Gurian-Sherman said. “The city has to stop looking the other way.”

‘It’s a racket’

When it became clear that Chauvin and Floyd knew each other because they both worked at El Nuevo Rodeo, the whole world wanted to hear from Santamaria about her two former employees — one dead and one a cop charged with killing him.

Later, Chauvin was charged with evading taxes on what she’d paid him.  

Prosecutors said Chauvin failed to pay taxes on $95,920 he earned doing security for El Nuevo Rodeo between 2014 and 2019. In addition to EME Antro Bar, where prosecutors said Chauvin was paid $250 cash for 3.5 hours, he also worked off-duty shifts at Cub Foods and Midtown Global Market.

Chauvin pleaded guilty to two crimes in March, saying he didn’t report the payments due to financial problems, and was sentenced to 13 months in prison.  

Santamaria — who owns a Spanish language radio station, La Raza 95.7FM — was interviewed by state investigators about her work with MPD.

She looks back on those days with disgust. She sensed the city licensing division was in cahoots with MPD to make minority business owners hire the police.

“It’s a racket,” she said. “You were damned if you did, damned if you didn’t … you were always having to break the law.”

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