Minneapolis police cash in on bar beat

Off-duty cops are paid $45 an hour to keep an eye on the bars
Daniel Corrigan

Every weekend, paper envelopes thick with stacks of 20s appear in a wooden mailbox inside the Minneapolis Police Department's First Precinct. When business is slow, the cash totals around $390, but sometimes it's as much as three and a half grand.

Sgt. Edward "E.T." Nelson counts it out and divvies it up. Nelson is czar of what the cops call the Warehouse bar beat. In addition to working full-time as a police sergeant, his side gig is scheduling off-duty cops to watch the Warehouse District clubs. The nightclubs pay Nelson $30 apiece on weekend nights, so if five clubs need cops Friday and Saturday, Nelson nets $300.

Welcome to the shadow world of off-duty police work—the free-enterprise way to keep the city safe. Part-time work is the way that cops in Minneapolis—and in many cities across the United States, for that matter—supplement their paychecks.

In other cities, the jobs are organized by and run through the police brass. But Minneapolis is unique: Here, a crew of entrepreneurial cops pulls the strings.

"It's something I'd like to get changed," says Police Chief Tim Dolan. "It's like you have two different departments. Things don't go well, and they're wearing this shirt and this patch."

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the department had problems associated with freelance cop work. Businesses paid in cash, and some officers engaged in double-dipping and brokering—the department's term for making money off other cops' work.

One of the more outlandish stories involves an Arab sheikh who came to Minneapolis for cancer treatment in Rochester and hired off-duty officers to protect him at his hotel. The job was at times bizarre.

"A 10-year-old kid got bit by a puppy, and the kid ordered a cop to shoot the dog," Sgt. Jeff Jindra recalls with bemusement.

But the sheikh paid so well that some cops shirked their regular police work, and in some cases worked for him while on the clock, according to Jindra.

The problems led to tighter reins on off-duty work. Now, policies are in place to ensure cops are loyal to their day job first and foremost. "That's why we have shift minimums," Jindra says, pointing to the regular hours that must be worked before off-duty work is allowed.

The biggest change came in response to a $1 million verdict against the city in 1995. Officer Mike Sauro had assaulted a bar customer while working off-duty. Now officers aren't allowed to work inside or man the door at bars.

"From an administrative perspective it's a good thing because we've cut down on lawsuits," says Inspector Kris Arneson, commander of the First Precinct. "But a lot of things can be prevented when you have an officer at the door. Just the presence of a police officer there brings down the crime that could happen or the shenanigans that could happen."

Control of off-duty work is passed down through politics and friendships. Some cops hire other cops for only one group—a developer, maybe, or a neighborhood group or association.

Others, like retired Sgt. Rick Thomas, control a virtual fiefdom. From his home in Denver, Thomas schedules cops to work at downtown parking ramps, and when major film directors come into town, he handles security for them.

He also hires cops for some of Minneapolis's bigger events, including Holidazzle and the Aquatennial, as well as the Cinco de Mayo Festival on Lake Street. In some cases, it's Thomas—not the chief—who comes up with the crowd-control plan. When two teenagers were shot at this year's Cinco de Mayo festival, cops working for Thomas and the festival organizers responded.

"When you have major events and you're blocking streets and have public safety concerns, to try to do that with part-time officers, I don't think that's wise," Dolan says, making clear his reservations.

Thomas's iron grip on off-duty jobs rankles some officers, who question why an out-of-towner is drinking so deeply at the downtown trough.

"It doesn't make sense for him to run jobs in Minneapolis while living out in Denver, Colorado," says Sgt. Jesse Garcia, the former PIO, who runs his own off-duty jobs at the Minneapolis Farmers' Market and a south Minneapolis bank.

Thomas is not the only one who draws criticism. Officers left on the sidelines of the Warehouse bar beat complain that Nelson uses side jobs to reward personal loyalty.

"If you're not friends with someone in his clique, it doesn't matter how qualified you are, you're not getting any work," says Officer Victor Mills.

Nelson declined to talk to City Pages about the bar beat.

Cops work four-hour shifts at $45 per hour, more than they can take home in their regular jobs. The cops stay outside the bars, and thus toe the line on the policy prohibiting work in bars.

Cash payments have pretty much fallen by the wayside now, and most groups that hire off-duty cops make officers fill out 1099s—but the Warehouse District clubs don't. Last year, former Officer Michael Roberts pleaded guilty to, among other crimes, failing to report more than $75,000 in cash from off-duty security jobs, mostly at the downtown Pizza Lucé. He was sentenced to a year in federal prison.

"The public has a perception that this is going on everywhere in law enforcement," U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle said, addressing Roberts. "Your career came to an end when you did what you did. It's simply not acceptable conduct." 

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