While some might call it bribery, others call it a thank-you or a nudge in the right direction.
For two University-area businesses, special discounts for police officers aren’t meant to be a bribe for better protection, but as encouragement for increased presence.
But Steve Johnson, deputy police chief for the University, said the department’s policy is not to accept gratuities of any kind that could influence decision-making.
Debbie Allen, owner of Gopher Cleaners in the 800 block of Fourth Street Southeast, offers a discount to uniformed officers who come to her store. The discount amounts to $6 off the dry-cleaning bill for a pair of pants and $2.50 off for a shirt, she said.
Allen started offering this discount after repeated robberies when she bought the store.
“There is comfort in seeing an officer,” Allen said. “We wanted a strong presence.”
Espresso Exposé and The Purple Onion also offer police a discount of 30 percent on a beverage, said Toby Mroczek, operations manager for the coffee shops.
“We offer it as a service to them,” Mroczek said, “as a thank-you for being here.”
Mroczek said that sometimes officers will come into the coffee shops around midnight for a few moments, which he said makes some of the employees feel safer.
Unlike Allen, who said she has had so many criminal incidents at her store that she cannot recall the number, Mroczek said Espresso Exposé never has had any problems.
“I think we maybe get less crime because people see the cops coming and going in here or they see a squad car out front,” he said.
Mroczek said he doesn’t consider it a bribe and doesn’t think his stores receive better protection as a result of the discount.
“I wouldn’t say that because we give a discount they’re more likely to come here quicker or make this more of a priority,” Mroczek said.
Allen echoed his remarks.
“Am I entitled to extra-special attention for the price of a shirt and a pair of pants? No,” she said. “I am only requesting a presence which is sorely missing.”
Johnson said police discounts of this nature can undermine the public’s support of the police, making it harder for them to do their jobs effectively. He said it also can perpetuate negative opinions some people have of police.
“Police officers really need to be able to command the public’s respect, their trust and confidence,” he said. “And so we need to be seen as applying the law impartially without any sort of favoritism.”
Mroczek said that when people who dislike police question the shops’ policies, he explains their reasoning.
“We tell them we wanted to make the officers feel more welcome here and we wanted to have more of a police presence coming and going in the stores,” Mroczek said. “Then they understand.”
Lt. Greg Reinhardt of the Minneapolis Police Department said that even though officers are told to not accept discounts or special treatment, it does happen. But, he said, it does not happen to the extent that officers feel like they owe specific store owners anything.
“We’re not in the days where cops are taking under-the-table bribes,” Reinhardt said.
Punishment for taking discounts or gifts include a letter in the employee’s file after the first violation and firing if there are repeated offenses, he said.
Some officers might see these discounts as unacceptable, so Allen doesn’t see a lot of police using the discount.
Both Allen and Mroczek said they thought many store owners offered similar discounts.
Reinhardt agreed, but said that just because it happens, it does not make it right.
He said he can’t recall specific problems or issues that have risen from discounts like the ones offered by Allen and Mroczek. But he stressed that that does not mean it’s an acceptable practice.
Allen said she will continue to offer the discount because police are not visible enough in the area around her store.
“If the officers would actually do their jobs and just be visible we wouldn’t have to offer things like that,” she said. “All they have to do is be visible.”
Mroczek said the discount is simply a gesture of gratitude.
“It’s a nice gesture to the police officers in Minneapolis,” he said. “And it’s the least we can do.”