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Rent-A-Jam

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By Aboubacar N’Diaye
Art by Blake Jones

In a cover story last month, the Houston Press listed the many causes for the nightmare that is traffic in this city. They mentioned the growing population, the choked highways, the lack of rail, the car-crazy culture. What they failed to mention, and what is becoming an increasing issue around town is the rise of off-duty police officers who are being hired out by private individuals or organizations for the purpose of helping to direct traffic.

Starting around 4 p.m. each weekday evening, at the intersection of Richmond and Buffalo Speedway, you will find a half-dozen uniformed police officers directing traffic. For most commuters, these officers are there to help ease the inevitable congestion of after-work traffic. What is also evident to anyone who has been stuck in that nightmare of a traffic jam is that these officers are not there to ease traffic. They are there to help the employees of the corporate offices on that street exit their parking garages. This scene, police officers stopping hundreds of cars in order let a few pass ahead of them, is happening everywhere around town.

Most people probably assume that some kind of traffic management is happening under the sanction of the city. As I found after contacting various organizations, including the police department and the city traffic management department, is that the use of for-hire traffic cops is largely unsupervised. When I inquired about hiring officers at HPD’s off-duty officer office, I was told that while cost may vary (I was quoted a range of $45-50 an hour), virtually any officer was available for this type of work. The officer I spoke to went on to offer me a list of officers I could hire for this job. He never asked where or when I needed them, or whether their presence would cause a traffic issue. For the cost of a few-dozen dollars per hour, you can have off-duty officers come to your event (or your office or parking garage), and help your guests or employees enter and exit quickly without regard to the impact on other drivers who did not pay for the privilege.

The use of off-duty officers for private traffic purposes is likely to increase in the coming months and years as the barely-hidden secret is that for most police officers, this type of work is where most earn a large percentage of their take-home incomes. The increase in officers moonlighting is likely to come from the scrutiny over the abusive overtime practices at HPD. In 2011, a group of four officers were suspended for racking up over a million dollars in overtime pay, calling attention to the implausible way in which on-duty hours were counted. Mayor Parker, as well as a number of other city officials, have vowed to tackle the runaway cost of overtime through increase police academy classes and more timesheet accountability.

The problem is that police officers, who in their first year earn around $35,000, have come to depend on the extra overtime income, being able to nearly double their salaries that way. That gap will be made up through more private security work, including more “traffic directing,” further congesting our already unnavigable city.

In 2004, city council passed an ordinance that set rules for off-duty traffic officers, detailing the correct signals to use and what forms need filling out. What the ordinance did not do is set up any means of enforcement for the overuse of these officers, nor any recourse for regular commuters who are heavily inconvenienced by this privately-funded police force. The only way that this practice can come under control is if the mayor, the police commissioner and the city traffic department acted to limit both the number and the location of these traffic blocks. They could start by just making it a little harder to rent a cop.

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