The devil in the details
|Despite the additional costs, many businesses and property owners are content to pay for extra security.|
As a downtown resident and landlord, Darryl Gissel pays a 117.5-mill property tax on his home as well as on each of the rental properties he owns—money that goes, in part, to the Baton Rouge Police Department and to the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office.
On each property he pays an additional 10 mills that goes to the Downtown Development District, a portion of which the agency spends on beefed-up security downtown.
On top of all that, he pays $100 a year to the Historic Spanish Town Civic Association for an off-duty police officer, who patrols the neighborhood several hours a week.
That Gissel is essentially paying three times for protection that, in theory, should be provided by local law enforcement as a matter of course, might strike some as troubling. But Gissel is unfazed by what he has come to accept as the price of living in Baton Rouge—and, in his particular case, downtown Baton Rouge.
“It doesn't bother me,” he says. “I'm to the point where I'll do whatever I have to do to make the neighborhood safe.”
Gissel is not alone. Increasing numbers of neighborhood groups and private businesses are willingly forking over millions of extra dollars a year to pay for extra police protection, taking law enforcement into their own hands —and paying for a level of perceived safety that government alone is unable to provide.
Exactly how much more the community pays is hard to determine, which in itself is troubling. Both the EBRSO and the BRPD say they are unable to provide complete records on how much money officers make working private details. But the EBRSO confirms it is more than what they made last year—because they've done 13% more details in the first six months of 2012 than in the same period of 2011. As for the BRPD, officials say the officers are working about the same amount of paid details as in the past few years.
Some experts and members of the law-enforcement community characterize the trend toward paid protection as a good thing. The more off-duty officers pulling extra security details, the more proactive policing on-duty officers are available to do. Plus, officers don't garner large base salaries, and most are only too happy to pick up extra money moonlighting.
Still, the extent to which the practice appears to be growing—eight new neighborhoods in East Baton Rouge Parish recently joined the 12 existing crime-prevention taxing districts— raises questions. Is it fair that public dollars pay for the fuel and maintenance of patrol vehicles used in private details? Are the businesses and neighborhood groups that pay for their own police protection getting fewer patrols from the on-duty officers assigned to regularly patrol those shops and neighborhoods? And, is the system working when citizens have to pay multiple times to feel safe in their businesses and homes?
“It's a question I ask all the time,” says Cliff Boulden, owner of Bet-R Neighborhood Market, which hires an off-duty BRPD officer to help guard its grocery store for five hours a day. “You pay your taxes, and then you turn around and something you supposedly are already paying for you have to pay for again.”
Does it add up?
Private details are nothing new, here or elsewhere. Officers work side jobs in their spare time to escort wedding and funeral processions, direct traffic at big public events like rock concerts or football games, and guard the doors and parking lots of restaurants, shops and malls. In recent years, as crime has increased, they've been doing more of the details that fall into the last category.
According to the EBRSO, deputies have worked some 170 regular, recurring details in the first six months of this year, compared to 150 during the same period last year, or 13% more. And some of those details include multiple deputies. The Rave Cinema at the Mall of Louisiana has several deputies doing details on weekend nights, as does Perkins Rowe, but they're only counted in the database once.
At the BRPD, officers this year worked about 200 private details in the first six months of the year, about the same amount as they worked in 2011 and 2010. That may seem incongruous, given the increase in the number of crime-prevention taxing districts that have been created in the past few years. But Lt. Todd Lee, who oversees extra duty for the BRPD, says overall the amount of permanent details has remained more or less constant.
“There may be a few more of those, but there are less somewhere else,” he says. “It fluctuates a little but more or less stays the same.”
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One might think the respective law enforcement agencies would keep a running tab on the total officers rack up doing details, but they don't. They only keep track of individual officers' extra detail time sheets. The EBRSO cannot say how much sheriff's deputies have made this year working details. At the BRPD, however, Lee estimates it is about $500,000 a month, which would be $3 million for the first half of 2012.
“That's just an estimate, but based on what I've seen from what individuals are making, that would be my guess,” he says.
At both agencies, officers are paid a minimum of $25 an hour. But they negotiate their details individually with clients and in many cases make at least $30 or $35 an hour. Lee says he oversees all contracts and signs off on them to make sure everything is aboveboard and that whatever fee an officer is able to negotiate, it isn't likely to lead to problems.
“We don't have officers out there charging $75 an hour,” he says. “You might have a one-time [high-paying]detail, but most of the time it's more like $30 or $35 an hour.”
A security guarantee
That Baton Rouge residents and business owners are spending millions a year to pay for extra security over and above what their taxes get them has become an accepted—and many say effective—way of keeping crime at bay. At least, that's the perception. At Perkins Rowe, General Manager Rick Balow employs two EBRSO deputies every weekend night to patrol in and around the development, particularly the movie theater and parking garage. That's in addition to a deputy who works a detail at McDonald's and one who stands guard at anchor tenant Barnes & Noble.
“We have cracked down to the point where we no longer have problems. People know if they start messing around, they are going to get arrested,” Balow says. “But we had to take matters into our own hands.”
Taking matters into one's own hands can get quite costly. The two deputies at Perkins Rowe work nine-hour details on Friday and Saturday nights, making $45 an hour each. That totals more than $84,000 a year, not including the extra details they pull for special events like midnight movie premieres.
“If we relied on just what we pay in taxes for our police protection, we couldn't guarantee they would be here,” Barlow says. “This way at least we can guarantee we have what we need.”
Boulden at Bet-R has the same philosophy. He spends about $55,000 a year on his BRPD officer and has chalked it up as a fixed cost. He tried a less expensive, private security company last year in an effort to save money but switched back to the BRPD. Police officers have arrest powers and serve as more of a deterrent, he says.
“Even though it's expensive, it's worth it because they do a great job,” he says. “But they're not going to come around here if they're not being paid extra.”
Paying more for peace of mind
A lot of business owners and neighborhoods feel like Boulden does and are willing to pay extra. That's why during this year's legislative session, eight new crime prevention taxing districts were created within East Baton Rouge Parish, bringing the total number to 20. Residents of those neighborhoods will now pay an additional millage to get better police protection in their neighborhoods.
But even neighborhoods that have not gone so far as to create taxing districts are showing a greater willingness to pony up for the peace of mind that comes from having a private patrol from an off-duty officer.
“The philosophy is that more has got to be better,” says Chris Schneider, treasurer of the Southside Civic Association, which collects voluntary dues of $120 per year from residents of Southdowns and University Gardens to fund a part-time BRPD patrol. “It's not enough, and in most peoples' opinions it will never be enough.”
But is something fundamentally flawed with a system in which the people who live in the safest neighborhoods pay extra for protection they may or may not need, while those in the highest-crime areas have to make due with what local law enforcement can deliver on the public dime? And, what of the public dime that goes to pay for the fuel and wear-and-tear on publicly owned patrol cars used for private details?
“Those are all good questions,” says Sid Newman, director of CrimeStoppers. “They're tough ones to answer.”
While Newman does not have the answers, he agrees with law-enforcement officials who say the more paid details out on the street, the better for the community as a whole. That's especially true at a time when crime is increasing and public dollars are limited.
“Details are an advantage to the community,” says Casey Rayborn Hicks, public information officer with the EBRSO. “Because if our deputies are doing a detail and see something, they have a sworn duty to act. So I think it's a great way for us to have an extension of law enforcement beyond what we already have.”
For example, off-duty officers assisted in the recent high-speed chase which originated at LSU and went throughout Baton Rouge.
Both Rayborn and Lee say their agencies do not specifically coordinate details with existing district patrols, so there is no danger of relying on officers who are working details to do routine work. Instead, duty officers are like extra hands that can be used if needed— and someone else is paying for them.
“We'd like to have more officers,” says Lee. “But you can only get what you can pay for. And if the money is not there, you're lucky to get what you can.”
While Lee says the whole community benefits from the way the system works, he concedes it isn't perfect and that questions remain unanswered about who's really paying for crime protection, whether they're getting their money's worth—and whether those who can't afford to pay are getting what they need.
“We wish we didn't have to have this discussion,” says Lee. “We try to offer the same police protection to everyone, regardless of where they live. But if some people want extra protection, well, I can't react to what a person thinks their needs are.”
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