Among police departments, Seattle pays the highest wages in Washington state. But within city government, the electric utility pays even more for their services.
Seattle City Light pays $90 an hour for cops to direct traffic, a rate earned by only the top 2% of the Seattle Police Department’s payroll. On Sundays and holidays, when City Light pays $139 an hour, not even the interim police chief earns more.
But City Light is not paying the officers directly. It is hiring them off-duty through Seattle’s Finest Security and Traffic Control LLC, a for-profit firm that has collected $13.7 million from the utility over the past decade. It isn’t clear how much Seattle’s Finest pays officers but it is likely a premium over SPD, where most officers make less than $60 an hour.
The city of Seattle’s practice of hiring its own cops for off-duty work is the visible tip of a much larger market, where officers equipped by the public wield their police powers to serve private clients.
Many U.S. cities allow cops to supplement their incomes with moonlighting work. But few have less control than Seattle, where working off-duty is written into the police union contract and the city’s efforts to overhaul it — including a law and an executive order in 2017 — have gone nowhere.
“To limit it in any way would take a tremendous amount of courage,” said Pierce Murphy, the city’s former head of the Office of Police Accountability, “because there is so much money that officers make off-duty.”
The system revolves around money, but no one is following it, an examination by The Seattle Times has found.
SPD leaders don’t know how much officers make working in uniform for other employers, from managing traffic for private schools to providing security for grocery stores. Employers who can afford to hire police do so through any means available, paying wildly different rates. Even after updating its limited off-duty rules, SPD can’t reliably enforce them, interviews and records show.
The Times found 14 cases since 2017 where SPD learned its officers worked off-duty without required permits — or couldn’t find a record of them — only after receiving complaints about their conduct. Among them: an officer working off-duty for City Light who targeted its employees with racial slurs, according to an SPD internal investigation. He resigned before he could be fired.
SPD only began tracking hours its officers worked off-duty in 2018 and wouldn’t provide annual totals. But over about a year beginning in February 2018, 414 SPD employees reported working 76,638 hours off-duty, according to an internal presentation obtained by The Times through a public-records request. Three unnamed officers logged more than 1,000 hours over that period — an average of at least 20 hours a week.
The department caps off-duty work at 24 hours a week to make sure officers get enough rest, but it can’t see in real-time if officers are complying. A new software system for monitoring hours isn’t being configured to track off-duty employment, according to SPD, because there’s too much uncertainty about what the city will require.
“Our interest is certainly in the fitness and the wellness of our employees to do what is their primary job,” Mark Baird, SPD’s chief operating officer, said in an interview. As for the ability to monitor off-duty hours, he said, “it’s very difficult to take a software application and craft and make changes for a process that hasn’t been fully fleshed out yet.”
The city’s laissez-faire approach to off-duty work long has fueled concern. City auditors worried that SPD officers would take leave to work lucrative off-duty jobs, straining police staffing. Police and civilian leaders worried that cops could develop loyalties to off-duty employers and provide a different level of service to them. The FBI opened a probe into allegations of price fixing in 2017.
City Attorney Pete Holmes said he doesn’t know why the mayor’s office hasn’t moved forward with trying to manage off-duty work. He sees the city’s lack of control as a liability, recalling a 2015 case where the city had to defend a lawsuit over an off-duty officer’s use of force.
“We should bring this in house,” he said. “I have consistently said we should.”
A spokesperson for Mayor Jenny Durkan said the city can’t move forward with plans to manage off-duty work until it bargains with police unions. Seattle’s last contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild, reached in November 2018, gave the city the option of reopening negotiations on off-duty work — but Durkan’s administration never exercised it, and the contract is now expired.
The mayor has focused on other issues involving SPD — staffing shortages, the federal consent decree, union negotiations and “answering communities’ calls for a more just and equitable approach to policing and the police department’s budget,” said the spokesperson, Anthony Derrick.
A lucrative market
Every day for three weeks in July, a pair of off-duty officers directed traffic for City Light at a job site in South Lake Union. Their employer, Seattle’s Finest, billed $90 an hour for their first eight hours and $139 an hour beyond that, invoices show. City Light ran up a $44,603 tab for the work.
Hiring one off-duty cop from Seattle’s Finest costs as much per hour as two traffic flaggers and a truck from another contractor, according to city records. The city paid Seattle’s Finest $1.25 million in 2020 for off-duty jobs across five agencies, with City Light accounting for more than 80% of it.
Those expenses are ultimately passed on to the utility’s customers in their electric bills — although they represent a tiny fraction of City Light’s operating costs, which totaled $873.3 million in 2019.
City Light mostly hires cops when it needs to override traffic signals, as required by city transportation policy, a spokesperson said. Directing traffic around utility work is essential for public safety and not a service that SPD typically provides, said the spokesperson, Lori Patrick.
“City Light is taking a new look at the process for using off-duty officers” and ways of lowering its traffic-control costs, Patrick said in response to questions from The Times. “We take very seriously our financial commitment to our customers and continually look for ways to keep costs down.”
The city doesn’t set rates for off-duty work, leaving employers to sort it out in private. The Seattle Mariners hires SPD officers directly for ballpark security, paying from $64 to $72 an hour, according to a team spokesperson. LAZ Parking, with parking garages through downtown Seattle, says it hires officers for between $80 to $100 an hour. Seattle Center, the municipal event campus, has contracted with SPD to provide security for $80 an hour.
Oakland doesn’t allow its officers to work off-duty jobs that require wearing their uniforms or using police equipment. Long Beach bars officers from working within the city limits because “there is an inherent conflict of interest when you provide security at a facility that is also policed by that jurisdiction,” according to 2016 survey by Seattle’s city auditor.
In Seattle, officers apply for an off-duty work permit through their superior officer for each employer. If off-duty SPD officers arrest a suspect or take law-enforcement action that prevents them from performing the secondary job, they are paid overtime, according to their union contract.
This contract for decades has included off-duty employment as a contractual right, in what appears to be uncommon nationally. Mike Solan, president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, wouldn’t discuss off-duty work beyond saying that the union no longer contracts such work.
Seth Stoughton, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, surveyed 162 police departments and found that 130 allowed some form of off-duty work. Of these, only 11.5% said they were required to do so by union contracts, according to a 2017 paper he authored.
Seattle’s city auditor, in its own survey, found that SPD “has very little control over off-duty police work compared to the other agencies we reviewed.”
Raleigh Evans has tried to keep it that way, at least as far as his company, Seattle’s Finest, is concerned.
“Business secret things”
For more than a decade, Evans worked as an SPD officer while running his off-duty scheduling business on the side.
In 2013, while still employed by SPD, Evans sued the city for denying him a permit to schedule other officers for off-duty work at CenturyLink Field, alleging the city “desires to take over the business, and resultant financial benefits.” He settled his suit for $45,000 and left SPD in 2015 after 20 years of service.
Evans has since built Seattle’s Finest into a dominant force, acquiring its main competitor, Seattle Security Inc., in January 2018. With more than 700 officers in its employ, the company operates like a private, on-demand security force across the region — from providing traffic control at coronavirus testing sites for King County to patrolling parks in Tacoma.
Reached by phone, Evans said he was too busy to talk. He didn’t answer written questions The Times sent him.
“Seattle’s Finest operates a reputable company, and complies with all state, local and federal laws,” he wrote in a general response. “We are a private business and are not required to comment on our business operations.”
He was more forthcoming with two SPD sergeants who contacted him in the summer of 2018. The sergeants worked for the Office of Police Accountability and they were investigating allegations of misconduct in off-duty police jobs. They’d reached out to Evans for his view on “how business is done correctly and how business is done wrong,” according to a transcript of the call.
Over more than an hour, Evans described how SPD officers historically made their own arrangements with off-duty employers or through colleagues who scheduled the jobs, always on a contract basis that came with serious legal risk should they get hurt. Seattle’s Finest, he explained, hires off-duty officers as employees so that they are covered by the company’s insurance.
He claimed not to know what others charged for off-duty police work.
“That’s kind of one of those business secret things,” he said. If others knew what he charged, he explained, “then they know exactly how to compete, right?”
But he didn’t hold back from the OPA investigators. Evans said he paid his employees $62 an hour for traffic control, with a four-hour minimum, according to the transcript. At the time, Seattle’s Finest billed City Light a base rate of $84 an hour, according to the utility.
The company raised its rates to $90 an hour for 2019, citing higher costs and richer pay for SPD officers in a newly approved contract.
The OPA officers who spoke with Evans in August of 2018 were wrapping up their investigation of off-duty work, which included a visit to the FBI’s field office in downtown Seattle.
More than a year earlier, executives at a startup company had alleged an organized effort to shut them out of scheduling off-duty cops and SPD referred the matter to the FBI.
A bureau agent presented the OPA officers with its investigative file and told them what they would find: “There was nothing really there.”
The two sergeants weren’t so sure. The file included an interview with a confidential source who managed parking lots and who felt forced to hire an officer described as “extremely demanding in the amount of money paid per hour,” according to notes reviewed by The Times. Another FBI interview mentioned “threats being made by off-duty officers” after a customer confronted them about “fraudulent invoices.”
The FBI interviews referenced supporting documentation that was missing from the file. When the OPA investigators asked about it, the agent refused to share the additional records or answer questions, according to their report.
Andrew Myerberg, the OPA director, ultimately concluded that the FBI documents “suggested that there could have been violations” of state law and city policies by SPD employees, but “given the dearth of information actually provided” they couldn’t be sure.
“The Mayor is not pushing”
While the FBI and OPA investigated, senior city officials drew up plans to assert more control over off-duty work.
The City Council had passed a law in 2017 requiring SPD to create a civilian-led office to manage the work. An executive order, signed by Interim Mayor Tim Burgess, laid out steps to set up the new system.
SPD recommended an online portal to connect employers with officers looking for extra work. Civilian staff would screen and approve off-duty jobs. Employers would pay officers directly, and the city would charge them a fee to recoup administrative costs — up to $15 an hour, by one city estimate.
Such a system, SPD said, would put decisions in the hands of civilians who don’t benefit from off-duty gigs, give all officers the same opportunities instead of depending on their connections, and offer the department real-time visibility into when and where its officers were working. SPD estimated the system would be in place by the end of 2018.
Instead of setting up the new system, the city erected another obstacle to it: a new collective-bargaining agreement affirming that officers could work off-duty on the same terms as before.
The deal outraged the Community Police Commission, a city office created by a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice to help oversee police reforms. In a brief to the federal judge overseeing Seattle’s consent decree, the commission blasted city officials for bargaining away hard-won reforms — among them off-duty work.
By embedding this work into union contracts, “the public has to pay more in order to have safeguards and protections,” said Anne Levinson, a former judge and OPA director. City officials, she said, should have tried to secure reforms at the bargaining table. “Every window of opportunity, every route they could have taken, they didn’t,” she said.
The department leaders deputized by Burgess to draft a new off-duty system continued floating ideas under Durkan’s administration, but with little urgency.
“Overall, I would say that the Mayor is not pushing on this issue, but rather recognizes that demonstrating progress could be important,” Ben Noble, the city’s budget director, emailed a colleague in April 2019. “So we need some analysis, but not worth killing ourselves over it at this stage.”
Noble referred a request for comment to Durkan’s office. Derrick, the mayoral spokesperson, said Noble’s comments “are clear in the context” of the mayor’s priorities for SPD, including compliance with the federal consent decree.
As the city leaders discussed overhauling off-duty work in the spring of 2019, they fretted in emails about whether managing the work would make it more expensive. Among their questions: If the city took more control, would it have to make pension contributions for work that had been off its books?
Durkan herself raised a question during a briefing in May 2019 about one of the biggest customers of off-duty police officers: City Light.
“The Mayor thought it odd that this work was not ‘on-duty’ time, and was also curious about the volume/magnitude of the work,” Noble wrote after the briefing.
As it happened, City Light cut a $7,920 check to Seattle’s Finest on the same day Durkan asked about the arrangement. Since that day through the end of last year, the utility paid 618 invoices submitted by the company for a total of $1,842,158.47.
Seattle Times staff reporter Mike Carter and data journalist Manuel Villa contributed to this report.