Baltimore audit of rampant overtime spending by city police finds agency lacks controls to track officers' hours

The Baltimore Police Department’s reliance on antiquated systems — including recording officers’ attendance on paper — has left it unable to effectively prevent waste and fraud when it comes to rampant spending on overtime, a city audit found.

Even as auditors were in the midst of reviewing overtime, the department struggled to follow internal protocols designed to bring spending in check and went more than $30 million over budget. Compounding the issue, department leaders expressed doubt to auditors that it was possible to rein in overtime costs while working to bring down Baltimore’s crime rate.

City Finance Director Henry Raymond said the first phase of the review, released Wednesday, revealed the department “lacks internal controls that would allow the department to ensure officers are working all of the regular hours for which they are paid, as well as to ensure any overtime hours are necessary.”

The department spent $47.2 million on overtime in the fiscal year that ended June 30, though just $16 million was budgeted. That’s double what the agency spent in fiscal year 2013.

It’s the first update on the highly anticipated police overtime audit since Mayor Catherine Pugh declared the need for one more than a year ago, following new revelations of corruption with the department.

Baltimore’s city solicitor said the audit’s delayed release is due to a continuing federal lawsuit between the city and the police union.

Wednesday’s release contains “as much as we could without it having adverse impact on our litigation position,” said Andre Davis. “Phase Two is underway and will dig more deeply into the actual records of actual officers.”

The president of the police union could not be reached for comment.

During the review, the department continued to rack up overtime and flounder in its commitment to curbing the cost. In May, as many as 40 percent of officers patrolling the streets were working overtime.

City leaders blame the agency’s soaring overtime expenses on a dearth of patrol officers. Officials have for years lamented staffing shortages that push them to rely on overtime to supplement regular patrols.

Pugh called for an expedited overtime audit after a crew of officers were indicted on federal racketeering charges, including allegations that they committed overtime fraud. Members of the Gun Trace Task Force, who have since been convicted, said they were working overtime when they were not even in Baltimore.

Pugh and police commanders have since emphasized that the main cause of the overtime spending isn’t fraud, but a lack of available officers and a shift schedule that’s locked into the union contract. The schedule dictates that patrol officers assigned to the city’s nine geographic districts work one of three 10-hour shifts. Each officer gets three days off each week.

“Is there overtime abuse? I believe so,” Pugh said. “But do we have the number of police officers we need? Absolutely not.”

Raymond said the city’s overtime system was hampered by a lack of accountability and enforcement, barriers to effective monitoring and supervision, a reliance on outdated systems and resistance to change.

The paper records — called roll books — are used by some patrol units and all nonpatrol units, the report states. White-out and eraser marks in the roll books suggest attendance is not always recorded on time.

“For the most part, time is kept manually,” Raymond said. “It’s very labor-intensive. The more paper you have, the more prone it is to error.”

Raymond presented a series of recommendations, which he said he expects the police department to implement.

“Reducing overtime costs is one of the department’s top priorities,” police spokesman Matt Jablow wrote in a statement. “To that end, we have already begun implementing several recommendations included in the overtime audit and, working with the mayor’s office, will continue that process over the next few months.”

The report said the department should require all officers to report to roll call every morning and that officers calling in sick should be required to use sick leave, rather than another form of leave. Raymond said the city is recommending the police department draft a policy that prohibits the awarding of paid days off without the use of approved leave.

Under current policies, the report states, roll is taken at the start of a shift, and officers are marked present for the entire day, even if they leave before the end of the shift.

Additionally, the audit states that multiple commanders “acknowledged the practice of awarding a paid day off without requiring an officer to work and without requiring use of an accrued leave day.”

“Multiple commanders tried to justify the practice by arguing it was a necessary motivational tool,” according to the report.

The department also must issue a new overtime policy that “defines expectations for supervisors and officers,” Raymond said. There must be more training for supervisors on how to manage overtime, and consequences if they fail to do so.

In the long term, Raymond said, the city is suggesting greater investment in technology to help root out unnecessary overtime expenses. This would include the use of biometric scanning to record the times officers start and end shifts and GPS tracking of all unmarked police cars, which take officers to the far corners of the city, where monitoring their hours is difficult. The Baltimore Sun reported in February that the department had begun implementing the new biometric technology, but officials said Wednesday that had not yet been carried out.

The city loses out on more than just money when overtime costs spike — the union says officers are worn down after long days, making them less effective in a time when Baltimore is struggling to combat rampant violence.

The report notes that, at times, police officials have described the situation in binary terms: Either control overtime spending or effectively address crime. They have expressed doubt that both could occur simultaneously.

The audit report states that an “enormous cultural shift would be necessary to reduce overtime costs.”

“The focus is on reducing violence, but we must get a handle on our overtime,” Pugh said.

The city’s budget for the new fiscal year allocates $20 million for police overtime.

The audit report states that excess overtime costs must be understood in context: Some of the money is reimbursed by third parties such as the Maryland Stadium Authority, Johns Hopkins Hospital or other organizations.

It also states that the department’s overtime woes can’t be blamed solely on patrol staffing shortages: Of the 25 highest overtime earners last year, roughly 40 percent were assigned to duties other than patrol.

The City Council has been holding monthly accountability meetings about the police department, focusing on both the agency’s budget and its crime-fighting strategies.

Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the public safety committee, said the report holds “zero surprises.” He said he was disappointed that on Thursday, a little more than 24 hours after the report’s release, the council will be asked to sign off on the use of $21 million in excess tax revenue to pay for excess police overtime.

Scott said he hopes this attempt to reform the department’s overtime spending will be more effective than those of the past. He’s heartened by the extra oversight afforded by the federal consent decree.

Pugh was asked Wednesday whom she will hold accountable for these next steps at a department plagued by frequent turnover.

“The next police commissioner,” she answered.

It’s still unclear who that will be; interim Commissioner Gary Tuggle has said he does not want the job on a permanent basis.

Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.

trichman@baltsun.com

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