Baltimore Police to use fingerprint scanning to track officers' time at work after years of abuse

The Baltimore Police Department plans to require officers to scan their fingerprints at the start and end of shifts to prove they’ve worked the hours claimed on their payslips, offifcials have confirmed to The Baltimore Sun.

The move comes as the department struggles to control continuing overtime spending of nearly a million dollars a week, and amid the ongoing federal trial of two Gun Trace Task Force officers whose corrupt colleagues have admitted to rampant overtime fraud by the unit.

“Let’s not sugar-coat this: Criminals found a gap in the system and took full advantage of it,” T.J. Smith, a department spokesman, said Wednesday. “That’s not fair to the city, and it’s not fair to the men and women in this agency who do their job honorably every day.”

Smith said the department is in the early phases of implementing the new biometric technology. Officials have purchased some hardware, but Smith could not estimate when officers will begin using it or how much the system will cost.

Smith said adoption of the biometric system does not reflect a lack of trust in officers and supervisors to tell the truth on their time sheets, but “instilling a layer of trust in the community that we are doing something” about the vulnerability of the current paper-based payroll system to fraud.

“We’re not just going to say, ‘Oh well,’ and everybody crosses their fingers and hopes we do better in the future,” Smith said. “We’re taking steps to make sure we do better.”

According to multiple current and former commanders in the department, the hope is that the technology will not only halt outright corruption, but curtail a longstanding culture in the department in which front-line supervisors — lieutenants and sergeants — use unearned overtime and other unapproved paid time off as an “internal currency” for motivating and rewarding proactive policing.

In the Gun Trace Task Force case, officers are accused of, and some have admitted to, outright overtime fraud. Some officers claimed overtime pay while on vacation or while gambling at a local casino.

But prosecutors, defense attorneys, and witnesses called in the case also have discussed officers being given informal days off, called “slash days,” as a reward for good work. Former Detective Maurice Ward, one of six officers who have pleaded guilty in the case, testified that unearned overtime pay was used in the department to motivate officers.

Several commanders who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the department said the actions of the gun unit were criminal and in no way reflected common practice. But they said front-line supervisors using slash days — or “g days,” to reward a gun seizure — is more widespread, despite not being sanctioned by top leadership.

Supervisors, they said, are desperate for ways to keep officers motivated in a city where morale-crushing crime is rampant. They said the practice goes back years.

“You would hear squads say, ‘Yeah, we got five guns last week, so we got five g days,’ ” one former commander said. “Some districts were well known for it. Some supervisors were well known for it.”

“It’s a well-known, not-talked-about secret,” said another former commander. He said he saw slash days used to motivate officers, to reward them, and to get them to work undesirable details. “I don’t think that the overwhelming majority of supervisors who are doing it think that they are doing anything wrong. They think that they are looking out for guys who are working hard.”

Another commander, who said he supports the introduction of biometric systems, said the culture of the department has allowed some supervisors and officers to think they are owed something extra for doing their jobs.

“Unless you have a way to track where people are when they say they’re working, particularly overtime, then there is always going to be abuse,” he said.

For years, the police department has far exceeded its overtime budget. Last year, it budgeted $16 million for overtime and spent $44.9 million.

Much of that spending is to cover patrol shortages, the department says. Officials have said the department is hundreds of officers short, and that a scheduling structure in the officers’ contract — four days on, three days off — is forcing it to draft officers to work additional overtime shifts during the week to maintain necessary staffing levels.

Current and former commanders say overtime is a necessary component of every police department’s budget, as police must respond to unforeseen emergencies.

But the fraud revealed in the Gun Trace Task Force case, coupled with record violent crime and ballooning overtime expenditures despite a half-billion-dollar police budget, have forced a new reckoning within City Hall.

After the Gun Trace Task Force officers were indicted in March, Mayor Catherine E. Pugh ordered an audit of police overtime, which she said she wanted completed “as soon as possible.”

“We allow police overtime to run up when a lot of other areas of the city, like schools, housing and parks and recreation, could benefit from that money,” she said at the time.

The audit has not been completed.

City Solicitor Andre Davis said Wednesday he could not discuss the status of the audit because it is “an integral part of ongoing litigation” around a police union lawsuit against the city claiming failure to pay adequate overtime.

Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, said he has heard of officers’ getting days off for getting guns off the street, and of supervisors letting officers leave work a couple of hours early after good arrests. But he said he hasn’t heard of officers getting unearned overtime hours.

Ryan said he has no problem with the department’s adopting a biometric system, which he thinks will “help with gaining the trust of the public.” He said it also could help officers get paid in a more timely fashion, as the current paper-based system can lead to clerks’ falling behind and backlogs. (The union’s lawsuit, he said, has to do with a separate issue: officers’ getting paid a lower rate for overtime hours than is mandated by federal law.)

The current and former commanders who spoke with The Sun said the city’s audit of police overtime would not be easy, in part because the payroll systems in place to track overtime have long been inadequate.

Officers put in for overtime by using paper forms that must be filled out by hand and then entered manually by clerks. The computer system in which overtime is logged lacks clear categories that distinguish the reasons for the work, making it more difficult to track and justify.

Smith said the logistics for the new biometric program have not all been worked out, but the department is not the first “large organization with a lot of moving parts” to introduce such a system, and is confident it will improve its payroll process.

“This is not any type of groundbreaking thing that we’re coming up with,” he said. “This is technology that exists.”

krector@baltsun.com

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