Ethics Alert
Police detectives with a conflict of interest


This appeared in the LA Daily News, on Sunday, December 7, 2003:

Ethics Alert
Police detectives with a conflict of interest

by Arthur A. Jones and Robin Wiseman
email to:

Despite the accolades for the Los Angeles Police Department in recent months, a severe internal crisis is looming around its nearly 1,400 detectives. The problem is moonlighting and conflicts of interest. It is compounded by secrecy and concealment.

And the road to cover-up is the road to ruin.

Industry experts -- we interviewed more than 50 in our 10-month study of off-duty police employment practices nationwide -- estimate that some 20 to 25 percent of LAPD detectives, or between 280 and 350 of them, are presently moonlighting as private investigators.

This practice presents grave questions of conflict of interest. It simply doesn't pass the smell test. We need to remember Mark Fuhrman and the difficulties Los Angeles suffered from police detectives using private jobs and professional connections to plant evidence or remove it from sight.

A currently pending federal lawsuit, Wallace v. Los Angeles, claims LAPD off-duty detectives were heavily involved in the 1997 murder of Christopher Wallace, better known as the gangsta rapper Notorious B.I.G. It accuses LAPD Officer David Mack and others of moonlighting as "covert agents" for Death Row Records, which was being investigated for multiple crimes of violence.

The Wallace lawsuit also blames three L.A. police chiefs and two mayors for squelching officer investigations and for intentionally cultivating an atmosphere of covering up for the wrongful conduct of off-duty detectives with access to police communications. Police force detectives can obviously benefit private clients through their access to police communications and intelligence, their experience in covert operations and their personal knowledge of who's who on the streets.

The power they gain through riding both sides of the street is enormous. In the words of one LAPD officer moonlighting as a P.I., "More often than not, I get better information from my private investigator information brokers than I do from anything that is police-only. If anything, I use my P.I. access more often to assist in law enforcement than the other way around."

But if police detectives are using either their public or their private employment to supplement the other, it is an alarming practice of commingling public security interests with private monetary gain that must be stopped.

If an off-duty officer discusses his or her secondary employment with an on-duty detective, then a criminal defendant or civil litigant's case could be severely prejudiced without that person's knowledge.

Nor are private investigators bound by the Penal Code. They are subject to none of the restraints, like Miranda warnings and Fourth Amendment search and seizure restrictions, that are designed to protect the public and are a part of the police culture.

Off-duty P.I. gigs are some of the most lucrative perks of an officer's badge: In some cases, like Wallace, it is claimed that police used their public power and knowledge to intimidate private persons and firms. Also, by California state law, an off-duty detective is under no legal obligation to report crimes he or she may witness if, at the time, that detective is working as a private investigator.

The public has no access to information about the frequency with which crimes are concealed or ignored in this fashion.

Before he was appointed chief of the LAPD, William Bratton saw an insidious problem arising in the conflict between police detectives and private secondary employment: "The idea is that after my tour of duty, I'm going to be going to my private employment," Bratton said in 1998. "So I don't want to make an arrest in the last couple of hours. So to many cops, their real job is the paid detail. The policing? That's their pension job."

Moonlighting cheats the taxpayers. It costs about $100,000 to train a new LAPD officer. The specialized training it takes to become a police detective is a substantial added cost.

Also, the pay is not bad: About $80,000 per year including benefits for LAPD detective sergeants with some years of experience, and just over $100,000 per year for a detective lieutenant.

The Los Angeles Police Protective League, the rank-and-file police union, recently won a new contract involving pay raises of 3 percent per year for three years for LAPD officers. This came at a time of back-breaking strains in public budgets and raging cutbacks elsewhere, including in the Sheriff's Department.

But Dr. J. Ted Hunt, lobbyist and director of the PPL, defends detective moonlighting. He said in a March 1998 publication, "It is a shame that so many of our officers have to work off-duty jobs. If we were paid enough or if we could depend on regular overtime funding, we would not have to work off-duty."

He then explained the new procedure for registering detectives as off-duty employees of licensed P.I. firms.

This is clearly nonsense. The public has a huge investment in LAPD detectives. It has every right to require them not to dilute their loyalties or their energies.

Under California law, public employees are forbidden to take off-duty employment that would even potentially be in conflict with their official duties. The only exception occurs in the case of police officers.

Up until a few years ago, and the passage of SB 1375, officers were not even required to obtain a "guard card" to work off-hours as undercover investigators. Now, they must either be a contractor or "operator," or work for a licensed company of investigators. In that case, the licensing is, in the words of J. Ted Hunt, "only monetary costs of doing business; no peace officer is going to be rejected, getting the required permits is just a formality."

That formality consists of sending a photocopy of a police ID card, with two checks totaling $210, to the Consumer Affairs Licensing Division in Sacramento.

State law requires each police department to adopt its own policy regarding off-duty employment as a private investigator. At the LAPD, the manual specifies that permission is granted on a case-by-case basis: "The Department may impose conditions on outside employment or may prohibit it altogether."

Specifically, the department requires that the individual detective obtain the permission of his or her commanding officer. The nature and extent of the work being performed off duty is then subject to review annually and permission can be withdrawn if it is subsequently determined to be "incompatible" with the officer's on-duty detective duties. But by that time -- if ever -- the damage can be done.

Although we were denied access to any statistics regarding withdrawal of detectives' moonlighting permits, if indeed any has been canceled, the sheer numbers of double-dippers engaging in this insidious practice would suggest that moonlighting detectives are thriving unchallenged.

Equally important, the LAPD policy stands in stark contrast to those of other major departments nationwide, and flies in the face of model policies developed by state and local governments, their insurers and national associations of police chiefs and executives throughout the USA.

Here are some examples:

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, like most major police forces nationwide, bans off-duty investigator employment altogether. Its executives also informed us that the very thought of a Sheriff's Department detective acting as a P.I. off-duty is repugnant. The practice raises the appearance of impropriety and casts deep suspicions on the ethics of police officers.

The New York Police Department only permits its officers to perform off-duty uniformed security work within the city. It does not allow detectives to moonlight as private investigators.

In 2001, the Liability Assessment and Awareness International Inc., a risk-management consultant to governments and insurers on policing practices, introduced model legislation aimed at reducing cities' legal liability in cases of corruption and conflicts of interest. Three of its categories of forbidden secondary employment specifically include private investigator moonlighting.

In 1996, the prestigious International Association of Chiefs of Police drafted a model secondary employment policy that was funded by the Department of Justice and has been adopted in large part by hundreds of police departments across the USA. It outlaws off-duty P.I. work because it "is inherently a conflict of interest."

Of the hundreds of police forces we studied across the country, the LAPD is the only major metropolitan department that permits its detectives to moonlight as private investigators. Other city governments regard the practice as the most virulent and secretive strain of police corruption imaginable.

It is therefore surprising and disappointing that Bratton has not stepped forward to ban this odious practice once and for all. First, because he took the reins of office one year ago with a promise of "transparency." Second, because he spoke out against such secondary employment even before coming to Los Angeles.

In a time of heightened security needs, even one detective moonlighting is too many. The taxpayers make huge sacrifices each day to ensure that LAPD detectives are well paid and effective. It is not unreasonable to demand that they stop diluting their loyalty by moonlighting.


--- Arthur A. Jones and Robin Wiseman are international human rights lawyers with legal educations in the United States and Europe. They are consultants and authors on international policing, social policy and human rights.

For additional information or a complete list of references, contact:

Dr. Arthur Jones