Pittsburgh police are investigating whether a shadowy coterie of officers known as the "detail mafia" has figured out a way to manipulate the city-run system for assigning moonlighting jobs to gain an advantage over their peers in scoring the lucrative extracurricular work.
The police bureau's deputy chief confirmed the existence of the probe. Investigators are looking into whether some officers were wrongfully getting first crack at working various types of side jobs, called "details," by receiving an early-warning text message.
"We have made some progress in attempting to identify who the people involved in that are," Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson said Tuesday. "We hope to, through subpoenas, get records, etc., from the company that was employed to assist them in circumventing the secondary employment process. Once we identify them, we'll take action."
Hundreds of Pittsburgh police officers moonlight while in uniform to provide security for bars, stadiums, arenas and special events or traffic guidance for road construction work.
Side jobs are highly prized because officers are typically paid at time-and-a-half and can work up to 32 hours per week.
Policies governing so-called secondary and outside employment are under intense scrutiny following revelations in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that police Chief Nate Harper was involved in a private public safety consulting group with three of his subordinates.
The Post-Gazette also reported that Chief Harper allowed one of those officers, Cmdr. Eric Holmes, to work a second full-time job in 2007-08 as interim police chief at Slippery Rock University.
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has expressed disapproval of both situations. He said he wants to reform rules for police working outside their regular hours and plans to retain an outside legal expert to advise the city.
It is unclear who or how many officers might be involved in the "detail mafia," as the group is known by rank-and-file officers as well as top brass. Nor is it known how the system is being bypassed; whether the alleged activity is illegal, unethical or violates the police union contract; and if it is still under way.
It was unclear whether the investigation of the details may be a part of the FBI investigation of the department. Agents Tuesday seized boxes of documents at police headquarters.
"There's nothing I can tell you at this point to tell you how it operates or why. I don't think it operates anymore," said Assistant Chief Regina McDonald, who oversees secondary employment. "We're still trying to figure it out."
One website that investigators suspected of being part of the "detail mafia" has been taken down. A second website, believed by some to still be in use, touts "real time monitoring" and "automated text notifications."
There is speculation that the group uses a computer program to automatically refresh the bureau's secondary employment website and remain logged in. That way, it is believed, officers in the network are somehow alerted to new postings ahead of their peers.
Sgt. Michael LaPorte, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 1, said he understood the secondary employment system was being "rigged." The union brought the matter to the bureau's attention in the fall, but he said he had not received a status update about the inquiry.
Secondary employment, officially defined by the police bureau as work for a private entity "that is conditioned on the actual or potential use of law enforcement powers," is governed by a 12-page police policy that is now being revised.
There is also "outside employment," which does not involve use of police powers.
For years the police bureau, through its special events office, has coordinated the scheduling and billing for moonlighting jobs. The city receives a fee from private employers of $3.85 per officer per hour for detail work, which totaled nearly $800,000 last year.
It is believed that the "detail mafia" focuses on "quick picks," which are details that must be filled within 72 hours of being posted on the secondary employment website, created by North Carolina-based Cover Your Assets LLC. They are filled on a first-come, first-served basis.
Ted Cormier, founder of Cover Your Assets and a retired police officer, said he would not discuss his firm's work in Pittsburgh or other cities without his clients' permission.
Pittsburgh officials brought in the firm about six years ago to promote accountability amid complaints that favoritism played a role in assignment of side jobs.
Pittsburgh joins other cities in having issues with secondary employment even after contracting with Cover Your Assets.
In 2008, for example, 134 Honolulu police officers improperly gained access to the Cover Your Assets online database to sign up for moonlighting opportunities before the jobs had been posted for all officers to see.
Most of the officers used bookmarks from previous visits or manipulated the URL to gain access to "hidden Web pages" with the job information, said Christopher Van Marter, chief of the white-collar crime unit in the Honolulu prosecutor's office. A few advanced clocks on their computers, enabling them to search the database before colleagues could, he said.
The same year, some Lakeland, Fla., police officers complained that a colleague signed up her husband, also an officer, for side jobs. The husband never learned how to use the computer program, according to the local newspaper, The Ledger.
Capt. Rick Taylor of the Lakeland Police Department confirmed that it was inappropriate for one officer to register another for side jobs.
Also in 2008, an internal report by the Durham, N.C., police department called for broad changes in coordination and assignment of secondary details, including modifications in the use of Cover Your Assets. The review was prompted by complaints about how the secondary-employment system was managed.
The report found that some officers had preferential access to side jobs and that some accumulated large numbers of details, then parceled them out to colleagues.
Jonathan D. Silver: firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writers Liz Navratil and Joe Smydo contributed. First Published February 14, 2013 5:00 AM