Authorized by their departments, police officers are wearing their official uniforms while moonlighting for Exxon in response to a recent oil spill. Exxon’s Pegasus pipeline runs from Illinois to Texas, carrying more than 90,000 barrels of crude oil per day. On Friday, March 29, a leak in the pipeline flooded Mayflower, Arkansas, with thousands of gallons of oil, requiring the evacuation of 22 homes and wreaking havoc on the environment.
The oil giant’s response has prompted various ridicule, including Rachel Maddow’s jabs for its use of paper towels in the cleanup and Stephen Colbert’s satirical mockery of the fairly effective efforts to create “press blackout” (see for example, threats of arrests made to reporters).
Additionally, the cleanup effort raises a novel issue — as reported, Exxon now employs “at least 19 local law enforcement officers in uniform as security guards” during their off duty hours.
One official was reported saying that Exxon requires the off-duty officers to wear their police uniforms, while an Exxon spokesperson told reporters that “whether an officer wears the uniform is up to the individual.”
The Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association told reporters that if the officers’ department approves then “officers are allowed to wear their uniforms, even when off duty and working for a private company.”
Some argue, including local County Judge Allen Dodson who is helping to oversee the efforts, that police officers are performing similar services for Exxon as when on duty — providing protection and helping the community. Others, however, are concerned about potential conflicts of interest (including those threats of arrests made to reporters).
While officers may not have a First Amendment right to wear their uniforms when prohibited by the department, wearing a uniform imbued with state authority in service of a private company complicates matters, including raising questions of state action in light of any foreseeable constitutional claims.