FOR FIVE DAYS every February, in the gray and the rain, thousands of the region's hunting-and-fishing faithful descend upon the Portland Expo Center, Portland International Raceway, and Portland Meadows for the Pacific Northwest Sportsmen's Show.

On the busiest days, Interstate 5 near the Expo Center backs up in both directions, and nearby streets choke with people and cars. About 15 years ago, owner Bill O'Loughlin figured out he needed more than a little help managing the mess. So he put in a call to the Portland Police Bureau. He also got out his checkbook.

This year's show saw some 28 cops and four sergeants—all of them working on what would have been their day off—directing traffic and patrolling parking lots. But it's a peace of mind that comes with a price: more than $16,000.

"You can look at the dollars," says O'Loughlin. "But you can't. Because what's someone's life worth? These guys are fantastic. And most of them like to hunt and fish, too."

O'Loughlin is one of the biggest spenders in what's known as the police bureau's "secondary employment" program—a little-scrutinized perk that pairs in-uniform cops with private groups looking to pay a premium for first-rate security. The Mercury reviewed the program, after obtaining a $6,100 Church of Scientology security contract this May that hinted at just how much side money our cops can rake in.

According to contracts either signed or still active in the 12 months before June 2013, some 690 cops and 28 sergeants stood to collect $347,608 for just 31 weeks of work. (Those numbers would be higher if work outside Timbers games was included.) And their minimum hourly rate? $63.37—what the most senior cops working overtime would otherwise be paid.

But while most contracts, like O'Loughlin's, neatly fit the bureau's vision—big events that affect safety or traffic, not jobs done for the "sole benefit" of a business—the Mercury has found that's not always the case.

More than half the money we tracked, $177,810, came from one source: Bank of America. The bank paid a cop to stand guard at its downtown branch on SW 5th for eight-plus hours a day, five days a week. That contract was signed four days after Occupy Portland marchers flooded downtown, in October 2011. It didn't end until July 15, 2013.

"We approached Portland. We had a couple of invasions in our banking center," says Ken Austin, the bank's local security manager. "Then it was a matter of looking at the number of protests we'd had over the past year and realizing that the numbers had dropped off."

But groups also pay for cops to sit outside fundraisers or mind picnics in the park—jobs done more cheaply and just as well by private security. (The Mittleman Jewish Community Center, which sometimes brings in foreign dignitaries, also asks the bureau's criminal intelligence unit to work protective duty.) And Lloyd Center pays a premium, more than $7,800, to have a swarm of cops reporting to its security team during the holiday shopping season.

The bureau, under former Police Chief Rosie Sizer, changed the rules in 2009 to restrict some business-focused work. The bureau no longer lets officers work at the downtown Ross Dress for Less or in nightclubs like the New Copper Penny. Lieutenant Mike Marshman, a bureau spokesman, says the precinct commanders who approve the contracts try to avoid those that "reflect negatively on the city."

But accountability advocates argue it's abundantly clear that people with money have an in. Beyond this program, notes Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch, the bureau also has a separate agreement with the Portland Business Alliance that pays for extra full-time cops downtown.

"The whole policy is questionable. Why are uniformed officers doing this?" Handelman says. "If we had the money, could we hire our own cop?"

Marshman says the bureau has pared back its contracts in recent years—even cutting down on the number of cops it sends to events. But Marshman also acknowledged—when asked about the Bank of America contract—that the bureau could do a better job of vetting the contracts it's already signed.

"Does that public safety situation still exist?" Marshman says. "If not, we need to end the contract."

The Mercury also tried to figure out which officers work extra shifts most often—the bureau put limits on how often cops can take overtime jobs and calls for a rotation. But in an unusual arrangement, the bureau lets the Portland Police Association (PPA) oversee scheduling—meaning that information isn't public.

PPA President Daryl Turner declined to comment. But Marshman figured any cops grumpy about not getting work would make noise with their union brass if the program wasn't running smoothly.

Says Marshman: "It's probably self-monitored pretty well."