By all accounts, Martin Freeman was—at one point—an exemplary D.C. cop.
In 15 years on the job, he was written up only once, when he says he missed a day of work without calling in after his mother died. Freeman spent most of his career on a SWAT team. He even earned a Medal of Valor, in a tale straight out of a comic book.
Nine years ago, he walked into the First Cash Advance Store on Pennsylvania Avenue SE to see if they needed part-time security, which he used to do in his off-duty hours. As he waited to speak to the manager, two stick-up men burst in. One had a gun, the other a knife. Freeman, who was off the clock and out of uniform, nevertheless had his service weapon on him.
After the robbers ordered everyone to the floor, they turned their attention toward the money. That’s when Freeman saw his chance. “I just acted on instinct,” he says. He got off the floor and drew. Two shots and a B-movie hostage situation later, the day was won. Freeman’s bullets just grazed the robbers, but he was able to subdue both of them without any civilians being hurt. Afterward, then-Metropolitan Police Chief Charles Ramsey praised the officer to The Washington Post, saying Freeman’s actions were “one of the most heroic things I’ve seen in 30 years of policing.”
Not long after that, though, Freeman was no longer the department’s ace. His once-fawning chief gave him the boot. As a way of humiliating him, Freeman says, his termination papers were tacked to his front door: “My neighbors read them.”
What Freeman had done to turn the department against him, it seems, was try to take its business. And worse—talk about it.
In any given month, at about three dozen bars and nightclubs around the District, security is provided by people wearing a familiar uniform: they’re off-duty MPD officers. Years ago, D.C. cops used to moonlight frequently doing security work. But the D.C. Council ended that practice in 2000, and later set up a plan where nightlife operators who needed extra muscle would pay the city to station a police detail on the premises. It’s a lucrative gig, as far as MPD’s budget is concerned: the department charges $55.71 an hour for each officer deployed, and so far in fiscal year 2010, the D.C. Office of the Chief Financial Officer says reimbursable details have brought in $1.9 million.
Freeman, though, says this system is basically a municipal protection racket. In a lawsuit heading to trial this month, he accuses the District of stealing business from him and punishing him for speaking out. Six years ago, he and a few other cops were about to sign a contract to provide security at the Gallery Place mall. They were just waiting for MPD to approve some paperwork so they could take the part-time side work. Instead, MPD swooped in, somehow convincing the mall to install a reimbursable detail instead of Freeman’s crew.
To Freeman’s thinking, MPD had delayed approving the work so it could step in. Freeman figured the department had put some kind of pressure on the mall, as the District charged about double what Freeman was going to charge. He went to the media, speaking to Fox5 for a news report. “I blew the whistle on the department because the department was involved in illegal activity,” he tells Washington City Paper. When Freeman’s then-commander, Cathy Lanier (now MPD’s chief), saw the news report, she wasn’t happy. According to court documents, Lanier remarked to one of the officers in charge of Freeman that “a lot of your guys got in trouble.”
Freeman believes those words signaled Lanier planned to get revenge on him and his crew. Indeed, about a year later, three officers were suspended and Freeman got fired. Freeman says since then he’s been blackballed from all security jobs. One of the places he tried to get a job with was Federal Emergency Management Agency, but each time anyone checks his references, “MPD says bad things about me.”
Now the Fraternal Order of Police—which never liked the rules on reimbursable details, because the policy interferes with cops’ side work—is financing Freeman’s lawsuit. They hope to get rid of the whole system.
“The Metropolitan Police Department has engaged in providing private security services for profit (competing with off-duty officers performing part-time jobs) and in this process, overcharged D.C. private businesses for millions of dollars in violation of D.C. law,” FOP Chairman Kristopher Baumann wrote in a 2009 letter to Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, who chairs the Committee on Government Operations.
Baumann says two laws are supposed to prevent MPD from doing security work. There’s a law that says the police can only charge private venues the basic wage rate for cops working details, and there’s a law that forbids “brokering” by the cops.
Baumann told Cheh keeping the police department from going into business for itself is sound public policy: “It prevents the MPD from favoring private parties who hire the MPD, and it prevents the MPD from muscling out private security companies and off duty officers supplementing their income.”
Of course, as anyone who ever watched a gangster flick knows, there are two prongs to any protection racket. There’s getting rid of the competition—in this case, according to Freeman, his company—and there’s forcing people who may or may not think they need your services to hire you anyway. If MPD really is, as Freeman claims, running what comes down to a protection racket, when it comes to the second piece, they’ve got help. Spread across the city, there are venues who have no choice but pay their dues to MPD.
Take Muse Nightclub and Lounge, located at 717 6th St. NW.
To Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration investigators, Brenda Fuentes recounted a very shitty night out at Muse on April 25, 2009. Fuentes said she was partying with about 10 friends at the dance club when two women approached her. One of the duo pushed her, the other took her purse. Following the incident, Fuentes went straight for a nearby security guard. Attempting to get his attention she “loosened” his earpiece and asked for help.
Apparently, the bouncer didn’t appreciate that maneuver. As Fuentes explained that her purse had been stolen, he grabbed her. Soon she was being hustled toward a staircase. “Wait, wait,” said Fuentes, still trying to salvage the situation. But things only got worse: The guard dragged her down the stairs by the neck. On the 2nd floor landing, he threw her against a mirror and raked her “along the broken mirror and the wall to put her outside the club.”
Fuentes didn’t get her purse back. She did get lacerations, bruises and cuts—all of which she photographed for city liquor cops.
When things get that shady at a venue, city officials are quick to turn to reimbursable details. The Alcoholic Beverage Control Board (ABC) can order a club to take one on—sometimes on the suggestion of MPD. Muse took on a detail in March. The detail “will minimize the drain of on-duty personnel and enhance the general public safety around the venue and Chinatown,” wrote First District Cmdr. David Kamperin to ABRA officials in an e-mail. The schedule would “extend a 1/2 hr after closing time and be no less than 4 hrs before that time.”
By the end of April, Muse had racked up about $7,000 in bills for its compulsory security. Each year the city and ABRA set aside $1 million to help businesses offset the cost of police guards, so Muse only had to pay $3,000 of that.
Michel Daley, one of the owners of Zanzibar on the Waterfront in Southwest, taps the same fund. Because Zanzibar has had some violence, they were told last August they needed to hire a detail that ranges from two to eight officers depending on the event they’re throwing. “On the up side, it helps,” Daley says. “On the downside, it’s expensive.”
Daley says his detail left him with an almost unmanageable bill. He’s required to have officers around for any hours his place stays open after 11:30 p.m. He also brings up another problem regarding the hired guns. “We’re not their supervisors, he says. So it’s hard to encourage typical employee values among the cops—like punctuality. They can’t be fired, since the District put them there, so Zanzibar can’t really do anything if the officers don’t hold up their end of the deal. Skip Coburn, executive director of the D.C. Nightlife Association, says some of his group’s members complain about similar problems. “Sometimes they don’t show up at all,” he says of the cops.
According to Coburn, lots of club owners probably want to see Freeman prevail. They just won’t say so. “They are all very afraid of speaking out,” Coburn says.
But to MPD’s thinking, reimbursable details came to be because the previous way of doing things just didn’t work. “It is important to understand why we have reimbursable details for ABC licensees,” e-mails MPD spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump. Crump says MPD forbids officers from working directly for ABC establishments “because of a potential for a conflict of interest.”
In the past, officials believed, the moonlighting led to inappropriate coziness between hired cops and club high-rollers. Which even those who grumble about the reimbursable details say was a problem. Coburn has a vague memory of a cop getting in trouble with his superiors after being filmed with a clubgoer sitting on his lap.
Another reason the department shies away from club/cop business relationships is Officer Brian Gibson. Back in 1997, Gibson was sitting in his patrol car at IBEX Nightclub at Georgia Avenue and Missouri Avenue when he was ambushed and killed. The man who shot him was angry about being tossed out of IBEX by another officer who was working security there.
According to Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, who has championed reimbursable details, Gibson’s death inspired the department and the council to take a hard look at cops on the club circuit. He says Ramsey became concerned the situation was dangerous.
As for muscling Freeman, in court, MPD will argue that the forms that would have allowed Freeman and his associates to work at Gallery Place were delayed because Freeman was under investigation for a prior security job. They will also contend that Freeman was fired not because he went to the media, but because he began working for Gallery Place without permission.
And the 55 bucks an hour MPD charges? That’s not mind-blowing-ly expensive at all, the city will argue. That’s just how MPD covers paying the overtime cops who work the details plus some administrative fees. Nothing to see here, the District says.
Freeman, though, wants the court to look past all that and dwell on a more fundamental question: Should the city be able to force businesses to hire it for work private firms could do? Or does that blur the line between police work and the type of stuff the department would usually be investigating?