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City cops can moonlight as McCormick Place security, council says

Trade shows booking McCormick Place will be able to hire off-duty Chicago cops to work security. | File photo

The City Council agreed Wednesday to let moonlighting, uniformed Chicago Police officers provide security at McCormick Place conventions to ease fears of a terrorist attack similar to those in Orlando, Paris and Brussels.

Since 1996, the city and the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority have had an agreement in place that allows a pool of roughly 135 off-duty police officers to patrol Navy Pier. Most of them have been in uniform. Occasionally, they work in civilian clothes.

They are “classified as McPier” employees, but they are not authorized to wear their uniforms at McCormick Place.

On Wednesday, the City Council signed off on a new and expanded agreement that will lift that restriction and dramatically improve McCormick Place security.

It will create a similar pool of 135 moonlighting officers — maybe more — to patrol the entire McCormick Place campus. That includes the new basketball arena for DePaul University that will double as an “event center” for McCormick Place.

Some of the officers will be paid $30 an hour to work directly for McCormick Place. Others will be hired for the conventions and trade shows that fill the McCormick Place complex.

Mike Merchant, the former Chicago Housing Authority chief now serving as McPier’s director of intergovernmental affairs, has called the plan a direct response to security concerns triggered by the wave of terrorist attacks around the world.

“There has been growing concern with security . . . given the environment that we live in . . . in terms of attacks and things that have happened in Brussels or things that have happened in France and, quite frankly, things that have happened in Orlando now,” Merchant told aldermen last week.

“Some of the largest convention shows have raised concerns about having a presence — an armed security force. . . . They asked us if there was something we could do to engage the Chicago Police Department to be present at some of these shows,” he said. “They’re willing to pay these officers for their service. . . . At our direction, the shows will able to hire them. We’re looking to have multi-layered options for them to have security maybe roaming the floor, maybe canine units. This will offer a host of options. They will pay us and we will pay the police officers. Given that the campus is expanding, there will be times when we’ll have to hire officers as well.”

Merchant was asked whether a uniformed police presence was necessary to keep conventions in Chicago. He would only say: “This will assist in that.”

The security expansion was in the works long before a self-declared terrorist opened fire at a gay night club in Orlando, killing 49 patrons and injuring 53 others before being gunned down himself.

It’s part of a larger plan to make physical security improvements to the convention center campus, by “upgrading” surveillance cameras and, possibly installing concrete obstructions to prevent vehicles containing explosives from crashing into the convention hall.

“There has been an overall, comprehensive look at the campus. We’re putting things in place. This is just part of it. . . . Upgrading cameras and things of that nature,” Merchant has said.

Aldermen are all for the idea of expanded security at McCormick Place. But they have raised two concerns.

They want moonlighting opportunities now concentrated in the 1st District to be made available to officers across the city. And they don’t want cash-strapped Chicago taxpayers held liable for actions taken by off-duty officers or forced to pay for the hours those offices spend testifying in court.

“Who pays when I have to go to court three or four times? You gave me a blank face. It sounds like we have not been doing our homework in terms of delineating responsibility,” Ald. Willie Cochran (20th), a former Chicago Police officer, asked Merchant last week.

“The city should not have to pay any burden associated with officers working for McPier. Why would our budget have to be challenged on it when you have a budget of your own with resources and taxes? You can’t put that back on the city. Whatever has to be done to make that adjustment to make sure the city is not responsible for liability and court time, that’s what we want to see in this agreement,” Cochran said.

Merchant and Ryan Nelligan, a staff attorney for the Chicago Police Department, have assured aldermen that “The city will not be liable for any actions that officers take while participating in this program.”

Nelligan has said McPier will carry a general liability policy that includes coverage of $10 million per occurrence.