Baltimore Police release the body camera footage of a second officer in Sgt. Ethan Newberg arrest of a bystander.
As Baltimore police staffing shortages kept rising in recent years, officers kept picking up the slack, in some cases doubling their salaries. Overtime cost the department nearly $50 million in the past fiscal year alone, and the city never disclosed just how many hours each officer recorded.
A Baltimore Sun analysis of every hour of overtime paid over the past two fiscal years shows for the first time the outsize workloads logged by individual officers, often with little oversight from supervisors. One officer averaged more than 45 hours a week in overtime for an entire year on top of his regular time. Four more were paid for more than 2,000 hours of overtime, and at least 25 recorded 1,700 hours or more.
Officers often averaged more than 12 hours a day, every day, for weeks on end, according to data obtained through a public records request.
The long hours raise concerns from police and city leaders about the potential physical and emotional dangers — to the public and to the officers themselves — that experts say go with the stress of police work and little rest.
And they renew questions from some elected officials about the potential for fraud, as when federal prosecutors convicted officers of the Gun Trace Task Force for, among other things, “routinely [submitting] false and fraudulent individual overtime reports.”
The department’s tracking data obtained by The Sun contains inconsistencies and anomalies. For instance, police say officers sometimes saved up multiple weeks of overtime slips and submitted them at once, such as in July 2017, when officer Brian Rice, who was one of the six officers charged and later cleared in the 2015 arrest and death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered while in police custody, was paid for 192 overtime hours. Police spokesman Matt Jablow said that figure represented payment for previous overtime.
To account for that practice, The Sun in its analysis tallied all the overtime an officer received during each fiscal year and calculated daily and weekly averages based on the annual total.
Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, who took office in March, has worked to rein in the hours and improve oversight, both for fiscal reasons and to ensure officer wellness. He’s changed policy in recent months to keep officers from recording more than 32 hours of overtime a week, with early results showing steep declines in both overtime hours and costs.
The change comes as records show officers earned 64 hours or more of overtime during two-week periods at least 1,156 times in the past two fiscal years, on top of their regular work shifts. Many repeated that pattern over and over, a review by The Sun of weekly pay data for more than 3,000 officers found. The records include hundreds who have retired in the past two years or are no longer with the department.
“We saw pretty commonly officers greatly exceeding their limit,” Harrison said in an interview. “There were no measures in place because nobody was asking. It wasn’t being tracked,” he said.
Jablow said in a statement that the department has uncovered “historical waste and some instances of pushing the boundaries,” but is taking corrective steps through new policies and improved technology.
“When overtimes was at its peak, there was definitely a series of alarms that were going off. ... Are people actually working those hours?"
Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, chair of the Baltimore City Council's Public Safety Committee
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Most of the overtime comes from legitimate shifts being worked by officers in a department that is hundreds of officers below its ideal staffing levels, Harrison and city leaders say. Records show that the most extreme examples centered on about 50 officers who routinely earned 30 or 40 hours of overtime a week, on top of their regular patrol shifts.
Nationwide studies show that working such long hours and stressful duties take a significant toll on the health of officers and increase the likelihood they will be accused of misconduct or excessive force by members of the public.
Governing magazine published findings from a study of the King County Sheriff’s Office in the state of Washington that showed just one “additional hour of overtime per week increased the chances that an officer would be involved in a use-of-force incident the following week by 2.7%, and increased the odds of ethics violations by 3.1%.”
Sgt. Ethan Newberg was the highest-paid officer in fiscal year 2019 — running from July 1, 2018, until June 30, 2019 — with total earnings of $260,775 that included 2,229 hours of overtime, according to city records. Newberg’s totals would have been even higher had he not been arrested and suspended in the final month of the fiscal year on charges he wrongly arrested a man who talked back to him on the street.
The charges against Newberg were later expanded to allege nearly a dozen incidents in which prosecutors said he abused his power by falsely detaining and harassing innocent people “for the improper purposes of dominating, intimidating and instilling fear.”
The records show Newberg earned more than 70 hours of overtime in a pay period 16 times during the 11 months he was on active duty during the fiscal year. During consecutive pay periods in September and October 2018, Newberg collected at least 220 hours of overtime over four weeks. He averaged about 46 hours of overtime per week for the 11 months he was on duty.
Newberg is awaiting trial, and his attorney would not comment on questions about his overtime work.
Last week the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office charged veteran Sgt. Robert Dohony with misconduct in office and theft for allegedly lying about hours he worked in 2018 when submitting an overtime slip. He has pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor charges and was suspended by the department.
Officer Clarence Grear, who had been stationed at the front door at City Hall and a booth at a police parking garage, was paid $225,616 last year and had the second most overtime hours at 2,221, records show.
“We don’t want officers overworking themselves. No more than 32 hours a week, and at least a seven-hour break. That’s about officer wellness.”
Jessamy declined to file perjury charges, and Grear returned to the department after a suspension and an internal investigation.
Grear could not be reached for comment on this article.
The city has had difficulty tracking the number of hours worked because it has been slow to embrace new technologies, relying instead on an outdated system of paper overtime slips, Harrison said. That’s caught the attention of city leaders for years. Although all interviewed say Harrison has taken great strides, they want to see continued progress.
“When overtime was at its peak, there was definitely a series of alarms that were going off,” said Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, chairman of the public safety committee. “And, ‘Are people actually working those hours?' became a topic of questioning during monthly council oversight hearings, Schleifer said.
Council President Brandon Scott, who previously chaired the public safety committee, said he first raised concerns of excessive overtime in 2012.
"It’s always been about the entirety of the problem, not just, ‘Is there fraud?’ but having people work the amount of hours they were working was unsafe for them and the citizens of Baltimore.”
Harrison and his staff said the new policies are designed to save taxpayer money and make sure exhausted cops are not patrolling city streets.
“The overtime policy ... was put into effect to ensure that officers weren’t working too much and, therefore, putting themselves and those they serve at risk,” Jablow said in a written response to questions. “Healthy officers result in higher-performing officers and lower crime.”
City Councilman Eric Costello, who chairs the council’s Budget and Appropriations Committee, said he has been pleased with the steady reduction in overtime hours and costs under Harrison. “This was significant," he said.
But Costello said the department will continue to see high levels of overtime — “a necessity and reality” — until it can bolster its ranks.
“I would like to see the department adequately staffed. We’re making progress on that,” he said.
Harrison has taken steps to increase oversight, mandating that supervisors approve overtime beforehand. He’s also making overtime a topic in his weekly Comstat meetings with commanders.
“The ultimate goal is a technological solution that largely removes any room for human error or opportunity for abuse, and provides the kind of system that we need,” Jablow, the police spokesman, said. “That solution is a new payroll system that is being implemented citywide and that is scheduled to go live at BPD this fall.”
In Baltimore and elsewhere, department leaders are weighing the concerns of overtime and officer wellness.
“They’re human beings like the rest of us, but they have a job that gives them authority the rest of us don’t have,” said Justin Nix, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “I think we’re starting to give it its due attention."
Other departments have similar restrictions on the number of hours an officer can earn each week. For example, the Boston Police Department has restricted officers from working more than 90 hours a week, and the Metropolitan Police Department in D.C. limits officers to 98 hours a week.
One complaint from Baltimore officers for many years has been about “drafting," or forced overtime that was identified as a concern in the consent decree reached between the city and U.S. Department of Justice in 2017, as well as the police officers’ union. Harrison’s new policy has reduced drafting, helping compliance with requirements that the department create a finalized staffing plan to ensure a “sufficient number of officers in patrol in each district, without needing to resort to drafting, except in unforeseeable circumstances.”
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Since Harrison instituted new rules last year limiting the number of hours officers can work, costs and hours are dropping, city budgeting data shows.
Former Commissioner Darryl De Sousa attempted to introduce controls on overtime use but backed off after complaints from officers and commanders, a 2018 city audit said. The same audit said a previous overtime policy was “regularly ignored in practice.”
Harrison is determined to keep his policy intact.
“It’s decreasing because we are managing now and we are managing it well," Harrison said. “We don’t want officers overworking themselves. No more than 32 hours a week, and at least a seven-hour break. That’s about officer wellness."
But, Scott, the council president said “it’s going to continue to be a concern. We’re going to hold them accountable at every step of the way.”