With 'many' Baltimore police exceeding overtime limits, commissioner pledges crackdown

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison has pledged to crack down on officers who continue to exceed the department’s limit of 32 overtime hours a week.

Since becoming the city’s top cop in February, Harrison has reviewed police overtime and said the department struggles to enforce its own limit.

“We found many officers working beyond 32 hours a week,” Harrison said. “It’s not just the answer to a financial question, but a health-and-wellness question. Are they really performing well?”

The issue of police overtime resurfaces with the misconduct case last week against Sgt. Ethan Newberg. The 49-year-old sergeant was charged with assault and false imprisonment after officials say he wrestled down a bystander for mouthing off.

Newberg ranks among a handful of officers to benefit most from overtime pay. He more than doubled his base salary last fiscal year to receive $243,000.

A police spokesman could not immediately say how many overtime hours Newberg worked. Officers receive time-and-a-half pay for overtime.

Once again, most highly paid Baltimore employees are police officers »

More than a year ago, police announced plans to buy and install fingerprint scanners and track the comings and goings of officers. They trumpeted this new technology as a solution to years of costly overruns.

Today, the fingerprint scanners are sitting unused, said Sgt. Mike Mancuso, the police union president. A department spokesman could not immediately say why.

Other plans have failed to rein in overtime costs for a department that has suffered a lack of stable leadership. Four different men have led the Baltimore Police Department — the eighth-largest municipal force in America — since January 2018.

“As I’ve been saying for years, I’m concerned about the fiscal irresponsibility,” City Council President Brandon Scott said. “They’re spending money and they don’t know who’s working where — and not working — and they’re not getting the results.”

Scott said he worries about the health of officers who work 50, 60 and 70 hours a week. He’s also concerned they may lose patience with residents.

“It is unacceptable for things to continue as they have,” Scott said. “I welcome the commissioner reining it in.”

In October, the Baltimore Department of Finance published a report that reviewed the 25 highest overtime earners and found that 40 percent of them were assigned police duties other than patrol. For example, Officer Clarence Grear works the front door at City Hall and a booth at a police parking garage, then volunteers for extra shifts. Grear earned about $212,800 last fiscal year. That made him the 10th highest-paid city employee. He declined to comment.

Many officers have come to depend on the extra money, according to the finance report.

“The perception that overtime is a blank check limits accountability,” the finance report found.

The department still depends on handwritten time slips to track the overtime hours, Harrison said. Then a civilian employee types the slips into a computer.

“It’s rather antiquated,” Harrison said. “We need to be able to audit our timekeepers and what they are doing in real time.”

Overtime costs have double in five years to nearly $50 million for a department of about 2,500 sworn officers. Now 40 of the 50 highest-paid city employees work in the police department. These cops made up seven of the top 10 earners. The seven all earned more than the mayor’s salary of $178,000 last year.

Leaders in the police union blame staffing shortages for the rise in overtime. The force has been battered by attrition; last year commanders hired 184 officers only to watch 220 walk out the door.

“Command will surely have to violate their own overtime policy just to fill the daily shift shortages in patrol along with their other obligations to the Ravens, Orioles,” said Mancuso, the police union president. “Clearly this is the reason that the current overtime costs are as high as they have been.”

He asked what cops are supposed to do when they hit 32 overtime hours but are drafted to work even more.

“By limiting the amount of overtime that can be worked,” he said, “the Department will severely limit the ability to serve the public.”

Under current conditions, police have struggled to suppress the city’s gun violence, and Baltimore has exceeded 300 homicides since 2015.

Clarence Mitchell IV, the former state senator known as “C4,” has debated police overtime pay on his radio show. He said no officer should be permitted to double his or her salary through overtime.

“Absolutely not. … That could be two or three officers in that salary,” he said. “If it produced results, we might say, ‘OK, it was worth it.’ But where are the results for the money?”

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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