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Rent-a-Cop

Denver's finest protect and serve, whether they're being paid by the city or the corner bar.

The city attorney's office had been reviewing parade ordinances and discovered a rule mandating the time-and-a-half fee for moonlighting cops rather than the flat rate that the department had been quoting for years.

"It's not the first time we've discovered that we're not doing what the law says," explains Denver City Councilman-at-Large Doug Linkhart, who runs the subcommittee on safety. "It really is nerve-racking that these things come up, that suddenly we realize we're not doing what the book says. There's certainly egg on the city's face when they discover it, but I'm glad that they did discover it."

When Linkhart questioned whether off-duty officers could sue for back pay because of the longstanding mistake, both the police department and the city attorney's office said that since the officers had signed contracts that stipulated how much they would be paid for their work, a suit is unlikely. "We've heard no feedback from officers that they're unhappy at all," says Assistant City Attorney Mary Toornman.

But while enforcing the rediscovered rule would have meant more money for many cops, it would also have meant more headaches for event organizers, who would have had to cut checks for different officers at different rates. The rule was also problematic because officers sometimes fill in for one another, and their individual salaries could affect payment amounts.

To avoid such problems, the city attorney's office proposed a change in the ordinance to stipulate a flat off-duty rate as opposed to the overtime fee. The change was approved unanimously by the Denver City Council on April 1 — too late to help the 2008 Runnin' of the Green.

The city is now exploring helping McGrath recoup that money through some form of discount for next year's event, according to Kevin Scott, special events and film liaison for the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs.

Signing on for gigs through the Special Events Unit isn't the only way that cops can find extra work — and money. The DPD's Secondary Employment policy, which dates from the 1980s, has been updated over the years, and basically allows officers to get jobs three ways: through the Special Events Unit, through the Office of Secondary Employment, or on their own, via friends or contacts on the force.

The Special Events Unit handles street closures for major functions that need permits, like Taste of Colorado, the Cinco de Mayo festival and Runnin' of the Green, so event organizers have historically taken their requests for off-duty cops there. Requests for off-duty cops from bars, clubs and other entities, including the Denver Broncos, Denver Nuggets, Colorado Rockies and Colorado Avalanche, go through the DPD's Office of Secondary Employment, which keeps its own list of interested officers.

"It's a part of what we do; it's a part of the job," says technician Ted Newsome, one of two full-time staffers coordinating secondary-employment contracts. "Secondary employment has been part of the department since well before any of us came on the force, and it will likely be around long after we're gone. It's a part of the force, and it serves an important function."

Newsome has used off-duty work to supplement his income for most of his 25 years on the job, and concedes that the option is a lucrative one for him and the majority of his co-workers. "Officers weigh what's more important," he says. "Do they have the time so that it's not conflicting with a family event, or is it something they're willing to take some time away from the family in order to support the family?"

The standard hourly rate for secondary employment, as set by the DPD, is $45 at events without alcohol and $50 at events with alcohol. But cops who arrange their own contracts can charge more.

Police officers can come up with their own deals through colleagues and contacts, as long as they check with the DPD to make sure the outside employer isn't on a list of restricted establishments. Vanover, for instance, inherited his moonlighting spot at the Ogden after his boss on the force retired, and while he recovers from a recent operation, he has temporarily ceded the post to another friend, Gabriel Jordan, whom he's confident can fill his shoes.

On New Year's Eve, demand for off-duty cops is so high that moonlighters can often request four or five times the standard rate. By contrast, first-year police officers in Denver typically make $19.77 an hour (they're not allowed to take moonlighting jobs that first year), while 25-year veterans earn around $31.42 an hour on the job, according to the DPD.

Whether the cops are hired through the Special Events Unit, the Office of Secondary Employment or independently, the outside employers are all responsible for paying their hired help directly. But the officers are required to report the hours they worked to the Office of Secondary Employment, which makes sure that cops aren't working more than the limit of 64 hours of combined duty per week, says Detective Victoria Oliver, one of two employees in that office. Since there are no time sheets, the cops are on the honor system.

Denver firefighters had a similar secondary-employment policy until 2002, when it was revised to minimize conflict-of-interest risks and liability, says Lieutenant Phil Champagne, Denver Fire Department spokesman. Outside employers now hire and pay moonlighting firefighters through the department, which tacks the money — $28 an hour — onto their paychecks.

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