A change in an Odessa TX Police Department policy will leave local bars without off-duty police officers to provide security, a move that has left bar owners and managers perplexed and cops upset but unwilling to speak out publicly.
OPD has announced that as of Sept. 1 it will no longer allow its officers to work secondary jobs at any commercial establishment that possesses a mixed beverage license.
An OPD officer, who declined to publicly identify himself for fear of reprisal, said that "a bunch of officers" he talked to "are not happy." A meeting of the Odessa Professional Police Officers Association is set for Thursday, the officer said.
But Odessa police brass said the liability to the department is too great to allow the work to continue and can also harm the department's image, not to mention that overtime work within the department isn't filling up because officers are working off duty.
Not to mention the department is working on implementing its own fee schedule that will see the city bill any non-bar establishment for off-duty officer work, with the officers getting a cut based on their current earnings.
Previously, officers worked at a number of bars around town, including Twin Peaks, 10 Sports Bar and Grill and others, getting paid $35 per hour.
Sarah Ramirez, who has owned 10 Sports Bar and Grill for the past two years, said she spends $240 a night (on Fridays and Saturdays) and about $23,000 a year, not counting special events, on off-duty officer security.
Now, she said she will most likely be forced to hire a private security company despite having reservations about such organizations.
In fact, Ramirez said one such organization came knocking Tuesday and requesting that she sign up with the company. She said she didn't know the man and didn't know the company, but would be doing more research and making more calls before deciding.
"I know these cops," Ramirez said. Not only is she familiar with them, but she said she understands why they take the jobs. "One of the officers told me, 'That's my car payment for the month.' "
Others, Ramirez said, may use the money for groceries or to pay for daycare.
"I was shocked," she said of hearing the news that the officers would no longer be working at her bar. "There was no reasoning behind it."
OPD Deputy Chief Lou Orras said nothing specific prompted the decision, but the administration knew it wouldn't be well received.
"It was something that we've been contemplating for some time," Orras said. "It has a lot to do with the liability and potential exposure, not only for our officers but for the City of Odessa."
Orras said the liability to the department is real and the department's image could also be damaged by officers' conduct off duty, saying the typical stereotype is that officers flirt and pick up women while off duty at the bar.
"If their only reason for working at the Odessa Police Department is because they want to work at a bar, perhaps they need to re-evaluate their career choice," Orras said. "I hope I don't have officers that are just signed up to be bouncers."
Mayor David Turner said Tuesday afternoon he was unaware of the reason for the change, which he planned to research, but he said he knows some officers rely on such work as supplemental income.
But Orras isn't buying into the officers' need for overtime money, claiming that overtime within the department is still available and several times noting that the city pays officers well, starting at more than $50,000 for an officer.
"Our city pays our employees well. Perhaps they need a course in finance," Orras said. "They have never had a guarantee to off-duty work."
Both Ramirez and Mario Sosa, manager at Twin Peaks, said the presence of the officers helped keep fights away from their bars.
"It's good to have police officers here. It's a good presence," Sosa said. "... I think that the money we spend is well spent."
Sosa said the restaurant spends about $140 a night every night (except nights when they are showing a fight and bring in two officers) and about $50,000 to $60,000 per year on off-duty officers for security.
When police officials finalize their fee schedule, however, non-bar establishments looking to hire police will be paying different fees.
Orras said police are considering a policy that will see officers paid overtime for each hour they work off duty, in addition to a 10 percent administrative fee and a $20 per hour equipment fee if a vehicle is involved in the work, such as funeral processions.
Instead of giving the money directly to the officers, the city would bill the organization.
Ramirez said the officers were good for her customers to see in the bar.
"They feel more secure when they see an actual officer at the door," Ramirez said. And Ramirez's situation is slightly different, as a deadly shooting outside the bar in 2012 -- before she and her husband took it over -- caused Music City Mall to require certified peace officers be present at the bar.
Although, Ramirez said she would have certified peace officers work the bar anyway because she said she feels it's a good idea.
Orras said he doesn't believe that an officer's presence makes a difference in how people behave at the bar, but instead said the bars should be better about patrolling themselves.
"They don't need a police officer to determine somebody doesn't need to be served additional drinks," Orras said. He also said bars don't have to wait for a fight to call police, and noted that any business could call and request a "park and walk," or a brief patrol by an officer to make sure everything is OK.
Of course, those are subject to call load and importance on the list of what else is going on at that time, Orras said.
Ramirez said she wasn't able to make Tuesday's Odessa City Council meeting, but she will be at the next one to make her voice heard.
One officer, who declined to identify himself for fear of reprisal, indicated that the decision could result in a heightened call volume for incidents occurring at local bars.
"That's going to mean an increase in the overall call load at bars and clubs by not having an immediate response time, I guess," the officer said.
City Manager Richard Morton said he gave Police Chief Tim Burton his blessing for the policy change.
"They could still work extra jobs, it's just not at establishments that sell liquor," Morton said. "And I think there's still plenty of jobs out there."
The police chief said the revised policy stemmed from a routine review of departmental rules but that commanders had considered the change for a long time and the department could have made the change years ago.
"There was no specific or acute impetus," Burton said. "And nothing -- There was no incident that occurred that said, 'Oh my goodness, we have to do this.' It was something that we had contemplated and evaluated and made a determination that it was the best course of action"
But the chief also described potential conflicts officers face during off-duty details at bars. As an example, Burton described an officer witnessing a bar tender over-serve a customer, violating Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission rules that police do not have the authority to enforce.
Still having observed it, the officer in that hypothetical could then be held responsible and be responsible for making sure the drunk person does not drive.
The Odessa Police Department was the last police department in the county to enact such a ban, as the Texas Department of Public Safety, Ector County Sheriff's Office and Ector County ISD, Ector County Hospital District, Odessa College and University of Texas of the Permian Basin police departments all do not allow officers to work off-duty where alcohol is serve.
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