Paying for police overtime services [Editorial]

Howard County Times

An internal audit of the county's billing practices for certain police services provided to private entities, such as directing traffic outside major concerts, has found lapses in reimbursements.

The bottom line: The county didn't collect nearly $4 million that it could have from fiscal 2013 to 2016 for police officers who worked overtime under the department's Uniform Police Services Detail, a program that assigns officers who volunteer for extra duty at large community events.

The program offers a degree of flexibility to both the county and private institutions that have contracts with the county, dispatching additional uniformed officers whose services are paid by the sponsor. Two of the four factors in assessing the awarding of a UPSD contract are whether "a reduction of crime would likely result" and whether there would be "fewer routine calls for police services," according to the county's longstanding policy.

While event sponsors have an option of hiring private security guards, and hourly rates might be cheaper, the county's program provides highly trained officers with arrest powers.

The supplemental UPSD program, with sworn officers in uniforms, also doesn't require officers to break away from patrols on their regular shifts. (And in an important distinction, county officers who moonlight as security guards or watchmen for private companies outside of the UPSD program can't wear their county uniforms on their second jobs, making it clear they aren't on the county government time clock.)

County leaders acknowledge the audit's findings and are working to understand how some bills slipped through the cracks and make changes in processes, including tighter controls on determining which entities to bill and following through. There also will have to be legislation to clarify how the county recovers the costs. It's debatable whether years-old debt can reasonably be collected, or should be written off, given the county dropped the ball.

Going forward, taxpayers shouldn't be on the hook for supplemental police services to private groups. Consistent application of the policy will shrink the potential for accusations of special, favorable treatment and buffer taxpayers from subsidizing private companies.

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