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Baltimore police overtime isn't making us safe

If you’re paid by the hour, as nearly 60 percent of American workers are, you might be surprised to learn about all the ways Baltimore police can earn overtime.

State and federal law says you’re entitled to it if you work more than 40 hours in a seven-day period. But if you’re a Baltimore cop, your contract stipulates that you get it any time you work more than your scheduled hours per day or if you work any time at all on a day other than those for which you are scheduled (which, for patrol officers, is four days a week). Even if you work fewer hours on other days, and only 40 overall — heck, even if you total out to less than 40 — you still get overtime. (And, incidentally, the BPD probably would have no idea you had worked fewer hours on some other day because they log you in at roll call in the morning but not when you leave work at night.)

State and federal law say vacation and leave time don’t count when it comes to calculating whether an employee is due for overtime, only actual hours worked do. But if you’re a Baltimore police officer, your contract says otherwise. That means if you are scheduled for a day off but come in for a few hours — to testify in court, say — you get overtime. Indeed, if you’re scheduled for a week off but volunteer to come in anyway, you get paid for the vacation time plus overtime for any hours worked, for a total of two and a half times your regular pay.

Those are some of the points a Department of Finance audit makes about why the BPD is consistently over budget when it comes to overtime spending. The audit specifically notes that it does not attempt to reach any conclusions about appropriate staffing levels to meet the city’s crime fighting needs — as it shouldn’t; the auditors are by no means expert in that. But it is easy to conclude from the auditors’ findings that many of the hours for which Baltimore police are paid overtime do not actually correspond with officers spending more time on patrol or investigating crimes. They are a function of policies more generous than most private sector workers get.

Now, Baltimore police aren’t unique in getting a better deal on overtime than the law requires. The union contracts in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties also calculate overtime on a daily rather than weekly basis. (Neither one goes as far on the vacation pay/overtime pay front, though.) But those jurisdictions don’t have the chronic overtime problems Baltimore police do.

Part of the issue, obviously, is the antiquated, pen and paper system the department uses to track hours. Fred Flintsone’s boss literally had a better way to clock him in and out. The BPD’s promise to move to a biometric scanning system is well and good, but plain old punch cards would be a huge improvement.

The greater problem, though, is the combination of generous overtime policies with a lax culture when it comes to payroll. The finance department’s audit confirmed what we learned from testimony in the gun trace task force trial: Supervisors routinely grant days off as a “reward” for officers they deem to have done a good job. That has a cascading effect on overtime since it creates staffing shortages beyond those that can be expected from the number of officers, number of shifts to be covered and days of on-the-books leave awarded each year. It also contributes to a sense that timekeeping is a convenient fiction rather than an actual measure of hours worked. In that kind of atmosphere, it’s no wonder that overtime spending would balloon. Officers can find ways to game the system, and apparently, some of them do.

The auditors said that in their interviews, they found a pervasive attitude in the department that Baltimore police can fight crime or control overtime but not both. That’s clearly not true. Overtime doubled between 2013 and 2017, which means that in previous years when crime rates here were substantially lower, overtime spending was lower, too. Police officers may now view it as their right to pad their earnings — in extreme cases, to double them — through adept use of the overtime system, but not so long ago they lived with much less.

No question, we need police on the streets, conducting patrols and building relationships with the communities they serve. But all this overtime spending isn’t getting us that. This problem isn't new, and this isn’t the first time the city has tried to address it. But with this audit, Mayor Catherine Pugh’s administration has a road map for the kind of systems, controls and checks that need to be put in place. She needs to succeed. It’s not just the city’s finances but it’s safety that’s at stake.

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