Saturday, October 20, 2007

Trust Me, It's Not that Weird

Jessica McBride thinks that a proposal to allow the Milwaukee police department to essentially "rent" on-duty police officers to bars to serve as security personnel is kinda "weird." Now, I actually have been on all three sides of this troika. I once worked in a restaurant (an alcohol-free one, by the way) in a large metropolitan area that was provided with an on-duty police officer for three hours each night just before closing (and the restaurant closed at 8:00 PM). The restaurant picked up the tab. I've also done some hard time as a rent-a-cop and a bouncer at a bar. So, basically, I think I can justifiably say I bring some unique expertise to this issue.

Let's do it like this: McBride asks some legitimate questions that I'll take a stab at.

If private establishments want law-enforcement trained security guards, shouldn't they be off duty?

Not necessarily. A uniform and a badge can make a huge difference (to say nothing of an armed officer). Private security guards rarely have advanced training beyond "Look like you're in charge and then call the police." Plus, if a rent-a-cop wore his uniform in a pub setting, he would be the object of continuous ridicule by inebriated patrons, which would pretty much completely undermine any perceived authority he or she might have.

When I worked at the restaurant, the employees got to know the officers that came around in the evenings. The arrangement was that their shifts were voluntary and considered a good way to make some easy money since it wasn't like patrolling a beat or filing out paper work. They simply showed up, looked conspicuous, then went home. Usually they would stick around to make sure the female employees got a safe start to their return home. Their presence was very effective and we never had any problems while they were around.

Shouldn't on-duty overtime be related to a policing strategy central to the city's mission, not the needs of private establishments?

Of course, but they aren't mutually exclusive. Stick a uniformed cop in a bar and you will see attempted underage drinking plummet immediately. Bar fights will never make it past the planning stage. Sexual assaults may actually decline too. If this is done on a voluntary basis, then it shouldn't interfere with the city's law enforcement strategy at all since the cops will be essentially "moonlighting" their authority on their own time.

What if the department needs the officers on overtime for other things, such as targeted patrol missions focused on new crime hotspot neighborhoods, but they're obligated to sit in the tavern instead?

Again, voluntary basis. Any bar that would want a cop in their establishment would likely only want them there on Thursday, Friday, Saturday nights, maybe special events and some holidays (like the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving -- always a huge night for bars). If those days don't work for the cops, then the bars would get the shaft.

Even then that might not be a big deal. If a bar starts consistently having a uniformed police officer on the premises on a routine basis the clientèle will change as it gets a reputation for being "that bar with the cop" eventually the problem may actually go away. Sooner or later the bar may even just stop having the officer around all together.

If the cop is need elsewhere for some reason, he'll just leave. It's not like he has to constantly monitor people while they drink all the time. The officer's there to be a deterrent and sometimes that effect is achieved just through consistency and reputation, not necessary perpetual presence.

If you've ever been to a bar where a cop has just walked through and then left you may notice that for a little while afterwards, the place tends to quiet down a little and even the drunker of the patrons stop wobbling around for a short while. Everyone literally straightens up a bit before a few shots makes them all forget there was a dude with a badge right next them a short while ago.

The story doesn't make it clear whether the officers would only be able to work in the taverns on overtime, or whether they could do it as part of their normal shifts. If it's the latter, it's even worse, but it seems to be the former.

I doubt it would be the latter, unless they are assigned to a "problem" bar that is a reliable source of annoyance for the police. But that's usually done as a punitive measure against the bar owners.

For what it's worth, I think it's a great idea -- not only for the bars who'd want to be staffed by uniformed officers, but also for the Police Department. Doing this kind of thing is also a great way for officers to get to know a certain neighborhood. You can learn a lot about an area by hanging around the local bar for a few hours because there's few things drunks love to do more than talk.

I have no idea how many bars would want a cop in their establishment. Most will likely stick with an in-house bouncer. But for a few, the option would likely be a godsend.

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