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Commissioner targets abuse of sick leave City police policy doesn't limit days


Baltimore's police commissioner, upset that 200 officers do ,, not show up for work each day, is cracking down on sick leave abuse that he complains is preventing the department from putting more officers on the street.

The department's 3,100 officers have unlimited sick leave, one of the most liberal policies in the nation. Compared with other departments in Maryland and across the country, Baltimore's force has nearly double the percentage of officers calling in sick each day.

Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier called Baltimore's figures "excessively high." He said he has started sending sergeants to the homes of officers who call in sick and plans to secretly videotape officers suspected of abusing long-term sick leave.

Department officials stress that there is no immediate impact on public safety. The commissioner said in a recent interview that the "crackdown on medical leave abuse will result in a significantly higher number of officers on the streets -- where they belong."

Mr. Frazier said he believes that the high number of absences results from the department's liberal sick leave policy.

Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the police union, said his organization supports "the crackdown on officers who are abusing sick leave, but we want protection for officers who are legitimately hurt."

He said the department's "resources could be spent a little better" than videotaping officers on long-term sick leave. But he said that years ago, any officer who called in sick expected to get a call or a visit from a supervisor.

In a letter last month to the department, Mr. Frazier said that officers who lie about being sick do a "disservice to the dedicated police officers who come to work rain or shine, often when they're not feeling 100 percent."

Mr. Frazier said that 56 percent of the force took no sick days in 1995. "That means the 44 percent who did take sick leave took an average of 29 to 30 days, which is six workweeks," he said. As a whole, officers in the department called in sick an average of 15 days last year.

Inflating statistics

Officer McLhinney said that police commanders are inflating the statistics by including officers on long-term leave, such as those who have been shot and ultimately will retire on medical disability.

Of the 200 officers who do not come to work each day, a department spokesman said that 53 are on long-term medical leave and have been out for at least 100 days. The other 147 officers constitute 4.7 percent of the force.

The union president defended the contract language that gives Baltimore officers unlimited sick leave and offers days off as bonuses for officers who work six months or a year without calling in sick.

Officers who are caught abusing sick leave are put in the Medical Leave Abuse Program for one year, which prohibits secondary employment while they are on review and requires that each sick day be approved by a doctor. As of December, 47 officers were assigned to the abuse program.

"We gave the department several years ago the tools to crack down on the problem," Officer McLhinney said, referring to the abuse program. "So far they have failed to utilize them."

District commanders said the number of officers taking sick days creates many problems, from short-handed patrol shifts to officers unable to take scheduled days off because they have to fill in for their colleagues.

Numbers are 'outrageous'

Maj. Bert Shirey, commander of the Northeastern District, called abuse of sick leave a "big problem" and said the numbers were "outrageous." He has six officers in the abuse program. Those put in the program are typically selected because they tend to call in sick after their scheduled days off.

"I'm sure you find that everywhere, but we can't afford that in the Police Department," said Maj. Odis L. Sistrunk, commander of the Eastern District. "We need all the help to fight the crime that is out there."

Major Sistrunk said that the abuse program should be used "to convince people that they need to come to work."

Bruce Marsden, a principal at the human resources consulting firm William. M. Mercer Inc. in downtown Baltimore, said that a typical employer loses 3 percent to 4 percent of its work force each day due to sickness.

But he cautioned that those figures are not based on police or fire departments, which put greater demands and pressures on their workers. "You wrap that around the public safety issue, and you get a whole new equation," he said.

Mr. Marsden said another aspect to look at is what the department offers its officers who aren't feeling well. "An officer may be too sick to walk a beat, but not that sick where he could work if there was a desk job available," he said. "If there isn't one available, the officer might not have any alternative but to call in sick."

The commissioner said the problem was brought to his attention "working police officers" who complained that they couldn't take a night off or get backup assistance because too many colleagues were absent.

The department has recognized the problem for a number of years. A 1992 consultant's report found that the average officer used about 16 sick days a year, and that a disproportionate number of officers -- 8 percent -- each used more than a month of paid sick leave.

Comparisons difficult

Comparisons with other police departments are difficult because they vary in size and keep statistics in different ways. None contacted by The Sun offers officers unlimited sick leave. Most have a ceiling, typically 12 or 15 days, and allow officers to accrue unused time toward retirement.

At the Maryland State Police, which has 1,558 troopers and another 800 civilian employees, an average of 35 people -- 1.5 percent -- call in sick each day. In Baltimore County, which has 1,500 officers and 500 civilians, an average of 32 employees, or 1.6 percent, are out sick each day.

In Chicago, which has 13,000 officers, an average of 20 are out each day. In the Atlanta Police Department, which as 1,500 officers, 33 take sick leave each day.

Officer McLhinney said the problems documented by the Baltimore Police Department should not be allowed to endanger the unlimited sick leave policy when the contract expires June 30.

He called it a "benefit that we enjoy" and said the topic is routinely discussed during contract negotiations.

"If they want to cut our benefits, they need to start looking at increasing our salaries," Officer McLhinney said. "You have to look at the entire benefit package."

The union president said that salaries -- which start at $25,000 and average nearly $36,000 -- are among the lowest in the state and are low in comparison with 16 regional departments. He added that more Baltimore officers are assaulted than officers in any other Maryland jurisdiction.

"We're not like schoolteachers or other public service employees," Officer McLhinney said. "We get hurt. That's part of the job."

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