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The Freebie Factor: All the Protection Burgers Can Buy?

By Dennis Holder |

Any time the subject of crime comes up among residents of the Lakewood area of East Dallas, someone is sure to remark, “If you want a cop, call the Dixie House.” It’s a shopworn gag in the neighborhood, but it holds a lot of truth. From 11 a.m. until 8 or 9 at night on any weekday, you’ll likely find at least one police car in the Dixie Lake-wood lot. Sometimes there are four or five.

Part of the reason the restaurant is popular with patrol officers, no doubt, is that the food is good and the location is central to East Dallas. Equally important, though, is the freebie factor: Dixie House restaurants, like many other Dallas businesses, give hefty discounts to police officers.

In fact, half-off policies and outright freebies at restaurants and retail establishments amount to unofficial, tax-free income that, for some officers, totals $4,000 to $5,000 a year above the city pay scale. And this extra pay often combines with other benefits directly related to service with the Dallas Police Department to more than double the wages taxpayers support for police protection.

For example, a corporal who accepts a fairly standard twenty-five hours a week of off-duty security work that requires his uniform and side arm, and who takes his share of discounts, earns not the $27,396 reflected by the public payroll, but something closer to $58,000. One who draws the plums of security assignments, which, according to Assistant Chief Charles Busby, pay $25 an hour, can add as much as $6,500 to that.

Off-duty work, the largest income supplement available to officers, is an accepted benefit of police service in most cities across the country. Some departments regulate it through central command, accepting requests from private businesses and doling out the work to avoid duty conflicts and to give every officer an equal opportunity to supplement his income. According to Busby, in fact, a few municipalities consider such work part of the official benefits package and figure in off-duty wages when they compute police pay.

In Dallas, though, off-duty work is handled less formally. “A prospective employer can approach any officer,” says Busby. “He’s free to hire anybody he can work a deal with,” Of course, moonlighting cannot conflict with official duties, and supervisors step in to curtail extra assignments if officers seem unusually tired. Ironically, off-duty work gets official recognition only when the privilege is taken away from officers who violate departmental regulations or general orders. “We use it as a disciplinary tool,” says Busby. “We’ll remove the right to wear the uniform on off-duty assignments if we have a disciplinary problem.”

Dallas Police spokesman Bob Shaw says the department occasionally receives complaints about officers performing off-duty assignments. The most common example, he says, is a case in which an off-duty officer stops traffic on a public street to allow movement into or out of private parking lots. Shaw says the city’s usual response is that on-duty patrol officers might be required to handle many of those situations if private work were not permitted. He adds that only a police officer can perform such duties. A private citizen could be arrested for interfering with traffic.

Busby, who supplements his own income by managing security for events at Reunion Arena, says off-duty assignments benefit the city because they increase police presence. “On any given shift, we’ll have at least one hundred officers working off-duty around the city. Citizens see those officers and feel that we have more police out there than we actually have.”

While off-duty work is generally accepted as a benefit that goes with the uniform, discounts on meals, free coffee, complimentary tickets, and other gratuities are more controversial. Dallas has only a casual policy, which is spelled out in the departmental code of conduct barring officers from accepting any gift, gratuity, etc., that might “tend to influence” them.

No guidelines exist to suggest what size discount or gift might be considered influential. ’’We really don’t enforce that very much, says Dallas Police Captain Rick Stone. “The question doesn’t come up very often. If it does come up, we look at it on a case-by-case basis.”

The city of Richardson, often cited during police salary controversies because the pay scale there is slightly higher than in Dallas-$25,536 as the base for a beginning patrol officer versus $23,476 here-takes a strikingly different approach to freebies. Rules and regulations for Richardson officers stipulate that:

“Members of the department shall not solicit or accept free food, drink, goods, services or discounts not generally available to the public from any merchant or business establishment.”

According to Public Information Officer Eric Austin, the policy is strictly enforced. “The chief feels that this prevents any conflict from arising in the situation where the tables are turned and an officer needs to take some enforcement action against a business owner or employee.”

Whether the haphazard policy in Dallas means certain merchants buy improved police protection is anybody’s guess. But business owners who offer discounts or freebies enthusiastically support the idea because they believe it helps deter crime in their establishments,.

“I guess we hope the officers will drive by and take a look after hours,” says Phil Cobb, president of Prufrock Restaurants Inc., the company that operates Dixie House, Black-eyed Pea. and other restaurants. “By giving 50 percent off on meals, we get officers in the restaurants and patrol cars parked outside. That in itself is a crime deterrent.” Cobb says that the discounts to officers are not a significant cost to his company, “I’m sure we give more every year to charity.” The manager of a local Kip’s restaurant, however, estimates his freebies cost $13,400 a year.

The Southland Corporation, which offers police officers free coffee and soft drinks in most 7-Eleven stores across the country, cites a similar advantage. “We think it is a crime deterrent, having police officers around the stores,” says company spokesman Billy Olson. Southland is so high on the value of police presence, in fact, that it has established four “mini-police stations,” private rooms in which officers can drink coffee, work on reports, and use telephones compliments of Southland Corporation,

One Dallas restaurateur, who asked not to be identified, goes one step further. “When you give discounts, you get high response, a quick time response when you have a problem,” she says. “It’s not really a bribe, but they know where you are. They’ve been there before.”

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