Baltimore police officials say they have told all employees that they cannot collect overtime pay while on paid vacation, saying that technology upgrades should make it easier to halt the practice highlighted in an inspector general’s report last month.
Shallah Graham, the department’s chief financial officer, told members of city council Wednesday that the department will no longer allow police employees to file for overtime pay in addition to vacation pay.
Baltimore officers on vacation have been allowed to also work extra duty shifts at overtime pay rates of time-and-a-half or more. A Baltimore Sun investigation showed many officers used that policy to rack up tens of thousands of dollars in paid overtime, with five officers each logging more than 2,000 hours of overtime in a single year.
The Inspector General’s Office reported in July that the practice was permitted and, while it didn’t violate any city policy, “it could be perceived as wasteful.”
“What our policy going forward clarifies is that it’s no longer a permissible practice from here on,” said Eric Melancon, the chief of staff to Police Commissioner Michael Harrison.
Police spokeswoman Lindsay Eldridge said there are two exceptions to the rule: officers who are called in to testify in court on a scheduled vacation day or those who work security for events like Ravens and Orioles games, where the vendor reimburses the costs of the salaries.
The department faced scrutiny Wednesday from the city council’s Public Safety and Government Operations committee during a hearing about the practice. The city has struggled to rein in police overtime spending, spending $12 million over budget in the last two fiscal years combined, according to the report.
Prior to The Sun’s investigation, the department was spending nearly $50 million a year in overtime, according to department budget records.
According to the department, the practice of “double dipping” on overtime and paid vacation cost the department an average of about $300,000 per year.
The department’s previous payroll system, developed and managed by New Jersey-based Automatic Data Processing (ADP), allowed for officers to file for both overtime and vacation pay without a precise way to identify when it happened.
“I do think in the case that we have here, a lot of what was allowed to occur had a lot to do with the fact that the ADP system was very permissive in this ability to do that,” said Melancon, adding that while the department was aware of anecdotal evidence that officers double dipped, “we couldn’t prove it.”
Graham added that the department has since switched to another payroll and expenses filing system developed and managed by California-based Workday Inc.
“We now have this transparency to what’s going on with our employees and we can get reports that tell us if policies are being complied [with] and not being complied [with],” Graham said.
While police say they’ve addressed the issue and expect incidents to decline, Baltimore city council members still grilled officials on why it was allowed to happen and whether the city could recoup the costs in the future.
District 14 Councilwoman Odette Ramos said she was concerned about the department’s commitment to addressing issues like this after Melancon said the department was anecdotally aware the practice was occurring.
“I’m disturbed about the fact that ... you’re seeing some of the stuff with these policies in place and then not thinking about when you’re going to actually try to take action,” Ramos said. “And then an [Office of the Inspector General] report comes up. And then it’s like ‘Okay, we got to take action.’”
She also asked whether employees who were “abusing this policy” were going to have to pay back some of the funds.
Melancon said that he would have to consult the department’s legal team to see whether officials could try to pursue recouping the funds, adding that because it was a past practice that the previous system permitted, it was unclear whether the department would be able to do that.
He added that he agreed with Ramos that the department doesn’t want to wait on the Inspector General to reveal issues like this, but said police officials limited in their ability to identify it because of the old payroll system.
Melancon also faced questions over the department’s handling of Officer Edward Gorwell, a former Baltimore police officer who was allowed to collect a police officer’s salary for nearly 20 years and be eligible for a pension despite the fact that he had no gun and his police powers were permanently suspended.
Gorwell fatally shot a teenager in 1993 and, while manslaughter charges against him were dropped in 1999, the department was concerned enough about the possibility he’d be patrolling the streets again that it struck an unusual deal with him back in 2002 to remain a police employee.
District 1 Councilman Zeke Cohen raised concerns similar to Ramos’ about the department’s ability to investigate these issues themselves without an outside agency. The Inspector General’s Office released a report Wednesday detailing the arrangement with Gorwell after receiving a tip complaining about the deal.
“Why did it take an [Office of the Inspector General] report for that to get identified?” Cohen said. “The gentleman was making $150,000 in his last year. Would there have been a way to identify this?”
Melancon said that it was brought to the department’s attention prior to the office’s report, but “there were a lot of legal questions that had to be answered before action could be taken.”
He added that much of the way the deal was implemented “had to do with a lot of the decisions made” prior to Commissioner Harrison’s hiring in 2019.