View Full Version : Off-duty cops/deputies working high traffic areas: legal authority?

05-30-2002, 01:28 PM
I'm not being anti-police, but I'd like to know if these guys have the legal authority to direct traffic (especially to hold up oncoming traffic) while they are in uniform but off-duty. I'm assuming they are off-duty since they often are not in full uniform or are standing by their personal vehicle, so for this post, let's assume the police/deputy is off-duty.

There are two situations/times when I see this, so it is a scheduled occurrence: Downtown parking garages at 5:00 pm (oncoming traffic gets stopped so the garage patrons can exit) and at certain large suburban churches on Sunday mornings.

I know it can be difficult to exit a parking garage or a church lot at certain times, but why should 5-10-20 cars be stopped so 5-10-20 other cars can get onto the same road when they voluntarily parked in a place which will be difficult to exit?

So, do the off-duty cops have the authority to do this?

(please disregard my username, this post isn't about my lack of patience as much as it is about a possible abuse of power)

05-30-2002, 01:50 PM
Yup, sorry Mr.W8 they have the same authority as if they were on the clock. Doesn'tt really matter what time it is or whether or not they have their uniforms on. I mean I have seen off duty cops wearing their side-arms. Its not like an off duty cop would just sit around and do nothing if he saw a crime or something along those lines. Plus the guys you are talking about most likey are racking up major OT for what they are doing...


05-30-2002, 01:59 PM
If they are off-duty, why would they get overtime? I think it is more likely that they are off-duty and being paid by the parking garage company or the church and wearing their uniform to look more official. If this is the case, should they have the legal authority to stop traffic for this reason?

It isn't like they're re-directing traffic around an accident or pursuing a drunk driver and doing their job off the clock.

05-30-2002, 02:13 PM
Trust me Mr.W8 if they have their uniform on they are being paid over time by the police department. I have a few cops in my extended family and I have asked similar Q's before. It is over time.

Whenever you see a cop on Sunday, not doing normal cop duties but in their uniform you bet your ass their getting paid overtime. They are definitely not there for their health...

05-30-2002, 02:19 PM
A cop is never actually off duty when it comes to his or her authority. An off duty cop can arrest you just as if he was on duty if he so chooses.

Gary T
05-30-2002, 02:30 PM
Originally posted by H8_2_W8
I know it can be difficult to exit a parking garage or a church lot at certain times, but why should 5-10-20 cars be stopped so 5-10-20 other cars can get onto the same road when they voluntarily parked in a place which will be difficult to exit? [/B]
Because otherwise the cars stuck in the lot could be there for hours, unless one of them gets crazy and risks a collision, or a car on the road lets them by, pissing off those behind him, some of whom would get crazy and risk a collison...

What you have is a situation that calls for a traffic light, but only a few hours a week. If people want to go to church or to events, they have a reasonable expectation that they can get from the parking lot into traffic without an undue wait. They're citizens and taxpayers just like the drivers on the road. Having a traffic cop see to it that everyone gets a fair chance to move along strikes me as the right thing to do.

The legal authority to do so? I don't know. But even if it's not spelled out in the law, it's a reasonable thing to do and I'd be surprised if any authority would act against it.

05-30-2002, 02:44 PM
Originally posted by Phlosphr
Whenever you see a cop on Sunday, not doing normal cop duties but in their uniform you bet your ass their getting paid overtime. They are definitely not there for their health...
This makes no sense. At the office where I used to work, the building management paid a couple of cops to direct traffic from 4 - 6 pm. So you're saying that they were paid by the building management and paid overtime by the police department? That's obviously not right. I can see if the cops were directing traffic for some official function (let's say the Olympics) they would be working overtime for the police department. But if a private business chooses to hire them, the PD isn't going to foot the bill.

05-30-2002, 03:42 PM
rsa if a cop works 40 hrs a week lets say monday to friday...then wants to direct traffic on sunday....thats overtime...on the same token..if a cop wants to work his 8 to 5 shift then go and direct traffic at a sporting event or something of the like, THATS overtimes as well. Different states have different laws, but in CT thats the way it works and i am pretty sure its the same elsewhere ....

Mr. Slant
05-30-2002, 04:01 PM
When I raised a similar issue with a sheriff's deputy redirecting traffic near the stadium at the .edu I once attended, he said that he was being paid his $16/hr AND working above and beyond his regularly scheduled hours. I'm wondering exactly how the money changed hands though.. did it go [Event Promoter] -> [Sheriff's Department] -> [Sheriff's Deputy] or did it go [Event Promoter] -> [Sheriff's Deputy] ?

On a related topic, one time I saw a man working armed security at the local all-night diner (again in college) wearing a uniform that was a dead ringer for the NC State Highway Patrol's uniform. On closer inspection though, his patches all read "Safeway Patrol". I wonder if that might have been a private security company that only used off-duty Highway Patrol officers?

05-30-2002, 04:02 PM
Phlosphr, let's rephrase that question; are you saying that cops get paid by the CITY for MOONLIGHTING? 'Cause I think what you're talking about is when a private party pays the police department to do extra security (which they can do); in such a case, the police are on duty, working overtime.

But if a cop moonlights as a security guard, or as traffic control, I don't think he gets paid by the employer AND the department.

05-30-2002, 04:22 PM
Gary, Phlosphr - please let me clarify my OP. This isn't about overtime or reasonable traffic movement or taxpayer rights.

If the cop is being paid by the business or church (and not the city/county government) to direct traffic is he any different than any other security guard, and therefore does he have the police power/authority to hold up traffic?

Since the cops/deputies I've seen doing this are often not in full uniform or are there with their personal car, I'm guessing they are moonlighting and being paid directly. If that's the case, do they have the authority to stop traffic for their employers (the garage or church)?

Should these businesses/churchs that need traffic direction then go through the local government to request support from the police (and pay the department to pay the cops if necessary)?

05-30-2002, 08:44 PM
I think there are two simple parts to it:

(1) Private businesses like to hire cops as security guards


(2) Cops, even when off-duty, are fully authorized to perform an arrest if they witness a crime.

So its a conflagration of two systems.

05-30-2002, 10:08 PM
Since the cops/deputies I've seen doing this are often not in full uniform or are there with their personal car, I'm guessing they are moonlighting and being paid directly. If that's the case, do they have the authority to stop traffic for their employers (the garage or church)?

The cops having their personal car may or not make a difference. I can easily enough imagine a police department allowing officers to drive their own cars to a fixed traffic directing post for a couple of hours at the beginning or end of their shift. ( I work for a law enforcement agency (not police) where officers routinely use their personal vehicles)The uniforms probably make a bigger difference. I can't imagine any police department allowing its officers to wear uniforms while moonlighting. What exactly do you mean by not in full uniform?


05-31-2002, 01:45 AM
As I understand it, police probably do retain their "special powers" even when not working their regular shift or working at all.

I saw an episode of COPS where a very dumb criminal had broken into an elderly lady's house during the evening, when her son - who was a police officer - was there. Off-duty cop grabbed his gun and chased after the guy... now it gets a little fuzzy here *** if I'm not confusing two separate episodes, the bad guy took off on a bicycle, and the cop jumped in his car and drove into him, knocking him off, then pinned him down until the on-duty cops showed up. When they got there and piled on, the guy kept saying "boys I'm a cop, I'm carrying a gun" so they wouldn't see it and cuff him too. Afterwords they checked him out, asked a few questions, and he left - while all the while the theif on the ground was crying about this crazy dude who ran him down with a car***. In other words, this off-duty cop "got away" with several serious charges that would have landed you or I in jail along with the theif, even if we were just trying to hold him (like carrying a concealed loaded handgun, speeding through a parking lot and jumping curbs, intentionally hitting a guy with his car, and possibly "assaulting" him afterwords)

Yes, very annecdotal I know. However, it's not the best of both worlds for off-duty cops... I beleive they also carry the burden of responsability and duty to interviene when they witness illegal acts when they're off-duty as well (big ones like assaults or looting - not jay walking), and if it's found that they were present during such a thing and stood by doing nothing or walked away, they'd be in a heap of trouble whereas a normal citizen wouldn't.

So if I'm right, they can do things like direct traffic when not on the clock, but they'd also have to do things like try to aprehend some guy slashing tires in a parking lot or at least make the call to on-duty officers and stick around to provide assistance until the whole thing is settled.

Is there a real cop on the message board to answer these questions?

John Bredin
05-31-2002, 10:22 AM
"So its a conflagration of two systems."

Paging Mrs. Malaprop! Mrs. Malaprop to the white curtesy phone. :D

05-31-2002, 11:26 AM
I can't speak for officers everywhere, but in the departments I know about, officers work off-duty shifts (paid entirely by others) and maintain their authority. However, if they are injured on the job, they may -- depending on their department -- be eligible for workman's comp.

05-31-2002, 11:52 AM
From the Master: http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a1_151.html

An off-duty police officer has the right--nay, the duty-- to make an arrest when he or she witnesses a crime.

05-31-2002, 01:04 PM
Several people have stated that off-duty police can intervene when they witness a crime. Fine. What does this have to do with the OP? People driving on the road are not commiting crime, so what right would off-duty police have to stop them or interfere with the normal flow of traffic on the road? If they can, does that mean an an off-duty police officer set up a traffic check point in front of his house just because he feels like it?

06-01-2002, 02:18 AM
They'd need a good reason for going out and ordering traffic around; like there was an accident/emergancy or the owner of a busy parking lot hired them to do it in agreement with the police force, possibly because it's too expensive to put up a traffic light for the 30 minutes/week that people are trying to leave the church parking lot.

The relevence of saying an off-duty cop can or may have to intervene in a crime is that it's another example of how they don't instantly turn back into a regular citizen when their shift ends; that they can still do things on-duty cops would do without having to get an officer who's officially on-duty to drive over and do it simply because his own shift doesn't start for another 2 hours - under some reasonable circumstances or conditions.

So no, Cheif Wiggum can't go out there with a lawn chair and whistle pulling over every car going by to see if the drivers have licences on his days off, but he could go out and direct traffic around your car after your driveshaft fell off in front of his house until the tow truck arrived.

Still waiting for a real cop to show up here, though it looks unlikely...

Northern Piper
06-01-2002, 02:50 AM
Not a cop I'm afraid, but I'll give it a shot. (Note: the following is based on the Canadian position, so I don't know how easily it translates to the U.S. situation.)

I think the discussion is confusing two things: an officer's status as a peace officer, and the officer's employment status.

A police officer is a "peace officer" with powers set out by common law and statute. An officer does not cease to be a peace officer until he or she turns in the badge.

An officer is also an employee of a police department. The department pays the officer to exercise his/her duties during regular shifts.

For employment purposes, an officer may not be on duty, but as a peace officer, he/she is always on duty, and can exercise the duties of a peace officer, even if not on a shift with his/her employer.

With respect to the more detailed question in the OP, I doubt that we can resolve it. We would need to know the jurisdiction in question, and the precise arrangement, if any, that the churches have with the police officers and the local police force.

06-01-2002, 09:39 AM
For what it's worth, H82W8, I've wondered the exact same thing and I'm amazed at how everybody is missing the point of the OP. Yeah, we all understand that cops can do cop stuff when they're off duty. Totally beside the point.
The question, I think, is why private businesses or individuals can hire a cop to do things that are within his abilities as a police officer but beyond the abilities of anyone else. In other words, a Wendy's restaurant could hire any Joe Blow to stop traffic for its customers, but that wouldn't work as well. Motorists aren't obliged to obey a regular citizen standing in the road. So you need to buy the authority of the police department and the uniform. THAT is what businesses are paying for when they hire a cop to work off duty for traffice control. It's not the individual or his unique skills in holding up a hand to stop traffic. They are buying the authority of an official law enforcement officer for their own use.
Now, as a practical matter, I don't see it as a problem. They're probably providing some needed traffic control and it's fine with me if they make a few extra bucks for it. But at least as a philosophical matter -- and I think that's where the OP was headed -- it seems odd that you can lease the authority of the police department for your own private use.
I guess communities see this as a useful and harmless arrangement, but in theory it's always struck me as strange.

06-01-2002, 10:16 AM
The question, I think, is why private businesses or individuals can hire a cop to do things that are within his abilities as a police officer but beyond the abilities of anyone else.

I think the question is whether private businesses or individuals can hire a cop to do things that only a police officer can do, or whether the police department see a need for traffic control and therefore assigns officers. It's not at all clear from the OP whether the cops are on or off duty The OP assumes that they are off duty because they appear to have their personal vehicles and are not in " full uniform"- I don't think the personal vehicles (if they are personal vehicles, and not unmarked cars) are enough to determine that, and wearing of any part of the uniform, to me. points to on-duty. I live in NYC. It is not at all unusual to have on-duty police officers detailed to special events such as parades,marathons and baseball games ( including directing traffic out of the parking lots). There's a big difference between a church or a parking lot hiring an off-duty cop to stop traffic, and a police department stationing an on-duty cop to direct traffic where the police department sees a need for it.The latter situation is more like the traffic department putting a traffic light at the parking lot exit.


06-01-2002, 11:02 AM
Ok, y’all got me curious.

I did some digging, and found some (but not a lot) of relevant stuff.

In Florida, a private company contacts the police department and pays the department, which then pays the officer. Here’s an official opinion on whether this is kosher or not, from:



Does a prohibited conflict of interest exist where a municipal police chief directs traffic at a local bank while on special duty during hours other than his regular hours of employment?

Your question is answered in the negative.

In your letter of inquiry you advise that Mr. Patrick O. Kiel serves as the Chief of Police of the City of West Miami. You also advise that during off-duty hours he works at the only local bank in the City to direct traffic in and out of the drive-up window area. These services are performed in official uniform, but are performed at other than his regular hours of employment with the City. In a telephone conversation with our staff, you advised that the Chief's activities are undertaken while on special duty. In this type of situation, the bank (or any other private entity) requests the services of a police officer from the City. The Police Department then bills the private entity which receives these services, and the Officer who has participated is paid by the City for the time spent on special duty.

End Quote

In Canada, courts have ruled that officers are always on duty.

From http://www.opcc.bc.ca/Legal%20Reference%20Material/Off%20Duty%20Police%20Conduct%20--%20Ceyssens.html


Although the view that there is no distinction between on-duty and off-duty is archaic in a number of regards, there is an established body of judicial decisions which supports it. The most frequently cited authority in support of this position is the judgment of the Ontario Court of Appeal in R. v. Johnston, in which the court allowed an appeal from a ruling that a police officer was not in the execution of his duty because he was privately employed by a business to direct traffic outside of its premises. The court’s conclusion that "a police officer is on duty at all times" is still cited with approval.

End Quote

Personally, I’m not sure how I feel about it. In a way it is odd that you can hire the civil authority of a police officer for $30 an hour. On the other hand, you can’t really tell them what to do, so you don’t control them. I mean, you can ask them to direct traffic, but you could not make them perform or allow illegal acts. While researching I saw a reference that one state has a statute that specifically prohibits hired, off-duty officers from enforcing any private rules or regulations.

It makes more sense (to me) if I conceptualize it like this. I, as owner of Business Z, have my customers creating a traffic hazard getting in and out of my place of business during rush hour. I call up the cops, and say, “Hey, I have a hazard here, how about an officer.” The cops say “Fine, but the citizens of our fine city aren’t going to pay an officer to protect against a hazard that wouldn’t exist unless you were making money on your private property.” “Fine,” I say, “I’ll pay for it.” The cops say “no, you’ll still be using an on-duty officer, and depriving the other fine citizens of his/her time and abilities on their shift.” “Fine” I say, “Ask for off-duty volunteers, and I’ll pay them.” Cops say “Good idea, but the officer still works for the city, so they will work in uniform, enforce all laws as they see fit, and the money comes through us.” Or something like that. It isn’t quite as whacky if you try to imagine how it must have started. Now it is an institutionalized practice.

06-01-2002, 11:51 AM
This is how I always heard it occured. You don't hire a cop directly, you hire the services of the police officer through the police department. That way there are some controlls as to who gets to hire the police to direct traffic.

Also, I'm pretty sure that any person can direct traffic in the event of an emergency and you are required by law to obey their directions. If you come across an accident and get out of your car to direct traffic, people are require to follow your directions. Now you can't direct them into a tree but if you are doing this for safety reasons, traffic must obey you. No cite for this one, sorry.

06-01-2002, 04:20 PM
Yes, Doreen, you're right that the OP is a little fuzzy on whether the cops or on duty or off. But if they're on duty, why the discussion? Cops direct traffic at parades, sporting events, and busy areas all the time, all over the country. No shocking revelation there. But as you say, off duty and hired for the convenience of a private party, that's different. That definitely happens around here.
And no, Telemark, I don't think anyone is required by law to obey the instructions of someone who directs traffic at an accident. Do you suddenly assume police authority just because you hopped out of your car?
It's probably the wise thing to obey helpful directions, but if Gomer decides to give me instructions it's not the same as a cop with a badge. In one case, I should be a decent person and follow reasonable instructions from a good Samaritan. But if I choose not to, he's not empowered to do anything about it. (We'll skip the unlikely possibility of a citizen's arrest, etc.) In the second case, he's a cop and I better do what he says or there certainly can be consequences. There's a big difference between "should, if you're not a jerk" and "required by law."