Friday, August 19, 2022

How contract work for law enforcement works in New Hanover County and Wilmington

A police chase led to the eventual crash of the suspect (Port City Daily/File)
Wilmington Police Department officers can be hired by private citizens — and they make considerably more than do when otherwise on duty. (Port City Daily/File)

WILMINGTON — We’ve all seen it, maybe on a Sunday after church lets out: a police car with its blue lights flashing and an officer directing traffic. But just what are these officers and deputies doing? Are they on duty? Should they be responding to incidents instead of directing traffic?

In New Hanover County — like lots of agencies across the state and country — law enforcement services can be contracted and hired by individuals or organizations.

According to New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office Spokesman Lt. Jerry Brewer, deputies are permitted to hold a second job provided it has nothing to do with law enforcement — but contract work is not considered a second job.

In fact, those looking to hire police or deputies for private purposes have to go through the respective agency, locally that’s the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office (NHCSO) and the Wilmington Police Department (WPD). Officers and deputies then volunteer to accept contract work — services are not guaranteed.

But the hiring of law enforcement officers by private individuals and groups has raised the question of the privatization.

Doing it for the money

Despite only paying officers less than $20 an hour (for new hires), the Wilmington Police Department charges $36 per hour to contract out officers (Port City Daily/Courtesy WPD)
Despite only paying officers less than $20 an hour (for new hires), the Wilmington Police Department charges $36 per hour to contract out officers (Port City Daily/Courtesy WPD)

Police officers and deputies might be public servants, but income remains a serious issue.

Police officers make a little less than $20 starting off at the WPD, but according to the city’s policy for providing officers, they must be paid $36 an hour, for a four-hour minimum, when contracted out.

Why did the city decide their officers are worth $36 an hour when someone else is paying them, but only provides half of that in regular time? WPD Deputy Chief Alejandra Sotelo said that was a decision made by the city — not the department.

The Wilmington Police Department has the following contract fees, according to its website. 

“Contract rates for officers:

  • Hourly Rate per officer- $36 per hour (there is a four-hour minimum on all contracts)
  • Marked Police Cruisers- $25 per vehicle (if the vehicle is used for four hours or less)
  • $50 per vehicle (if the vehicle is used for more than four hours)
    *A police cruiser cannot be requested without an officer.”

NHCSO deputies also have a four-hour minimum for their work when contracting, Brewer said.

Even though a private entity pays for the services, payment for services rendered are still provided by the city in officer’s paychecks, Sotelo said. Officers do get paid a higher pay rate from the city when they work contract jobs, but Sotelo said she wasn’t aware of whether or not the city receives a portion of that increased rate.

In uniform, on duty

Since both agencies require any contracting jobs to come through the actual department, officers and deputies are able to pick up the extra hours — sort of like overtime — but paid for by the contractee. Because of this, contracted officers are on duty and have the full policing powers as they have while working for the city or county.

“You know, for us, anytime you see a deputy in uniform, they’re on duty,” Brewer said.

This means they can make arrests, direct traffic, and in theory, make traffic stops — but in most situations officers perform the work they were hired to do while contracted. But deputies don’t have to be in uniform to make an arrest, Brewer said. As a law enforcement officer any time they are in the county they have arrest powers, he said.

Likewise, police officers must remain in the city limits.

“The officers cannot work outside the city limits, as they will be outside our jurisdiction. To avoid a fee, you must cancel the contract at least 12 hours in advance. Contracted officers duties are security and traffic control only,” according to the WPD.

It’s not just regular police officers who can benefit from the extra hours, any sworn law enforcement officer has the ability to volunteer for contract work, Sotelo said.

When it comes to responsibility, accountability, and any liability, since the officers are ‘on duty’ the city, and by extension, taxpayers, are responsible for any incidents that might occur when an officer is contracted.

As far as body cameras go, any officer that is issued a camera is expected to have it running while conducting contract work, Sotelo said. But since any employee can volunteer, some law enforcement officers, like detectives, are not issued cameras.

Privatizing the police

Law enforcement is a public service, deputies and officers have taken an oath to serve the residents of its community — that’s led some to ask what kind of precedent it set to allow a kind of privatization of police work.

When asked if contract work was considered ‘privatization of law enforcement, Brewer said that would be an opinion — something he won’t provide on behalf of the department. Brewer did, however, explain there used to be private police agencies operating locally that tended to run into problems with local law enforcement.

These groups were hired to police on private property, like at Waffle House, and had arrest powers, he said. To the best of his knowledge, private law enforcement agencies are no longer active in New Hanover County.

The question of using taxpayer-funded equipment for private purposes was also questioned. But since deputies and officers are technically on duty during these contract jobs, there does not appear to be any legal conflict for them using their equipment.

Customers

Escorts for races, funerals, and other events are examples of groups hiring law enforcement for private purposes. (Port City Daily/Courtesy New Hanover County Sheriff's Office)
Escorts for races, funerals, and other events are examples of groups hiring law enforcement for private purposes. (Port City Daily/Courtesy New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office)

Technically anyone in need of security services can request them from the departments, but some of the more common customers include churches, banks, and funeral services.

For the sheriff’s department, customers include ABC stores and movie studios, as well as private parties and family gatherings, Brewer said.

The Wilmington Police Department lists these example for its customer base.

  • Banks
  • Credit Unions
  • Grocery Stores
  • Movie and Television Production Companies
  • Jewelry Stores
  • Churches
  • Private Individuals
  • Five and 10K Races
  • Movie Theaters
  • Department Stores
  • Conventions
  • Construction Projects
  • Funeral Escorts
  • Hotels/Motels

Send comments and tips to Michael.p@localvoicemedia.com

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