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It is time for Baltimore to get a grip on police overtime

Baltimore officials on Wednesday released the first set of findings from a long-awaited audit of the police department’s rampant overtime spending.

The issue of the substantial overtime officers earn at the Baltimore police department is a nuanced one. It’s easy to look at skyrocketing numbers in the budget and cry foul at the six-figure salaries some officers are earning thanks to the benefits of overtime.

On the other hand, officers make a good point that with a staff shortage they have to take on more shifts to keep the city safe. In the first half of the year 89 new officers came on board, but 87 left. So the department really only gained two new people to patrol the streets and respond to 911 calls when it needs to gain hundreds to reach full authorized strength.

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But that shortage doesn’t entirely excuse a culture at the police department in which overtime has come to be viewed as an entitlement that officers seem to have come to depend on and expect to help pad their checks every pay period. A review by the Baltimore Department of Finance of the police department’s 25 highest overtime earners found that many officers look at it as a blank check. There’s been plenty of promises to overhaul the system, but surprise, it never seems to get done.

Once again the police department can’t seem to police itself. Perhaps, there are too many people who realize a crackdown on overtime will force a rude awakening for officers whose family budgets have come to assume that they can effectively double their salaries.

There always seem to be plenty of excuses for why this never gets fixed, the most recent being unstable leadership because of the high turnover of commissioners. We’re not sure how properly filing for overtime would change depending on who is at the helm.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison is the latest to try to tackle the issue by promising first to enforce a rule that prohibits officers from working any more than 32 hours a week of overtime, which already seems like an excessive amount. Exactly what officers are working more, and how are they appropriately doing their jobs on so little sleep? Theirs is a job that demands both patience and quick decision-making, neither of which are helped by fatigue. We can see how easy it might be for an officer to lose his cool during an arrest when he has gotten so little rest.

More needs to be done. To really get a grip on the issue, the department first has to figure out the extent of the overtime abuse. The department really has no clue when officers are truly working overtime. The only way to have more accountability is for the department to strongly discipline supervisors who don’t appropriately monitor the work hours of officers underneath them. There’s seems to be no accountability of when officers work. The case of the Gun Trace Task Force showed just how easy it is for officers to apply for overtime even if they were somewhere — say like the beach — other than policing the streets.

The department also needs to bring itself into the 21st century, something we know is a priority for Mr. Harrison. Tracking overtime with paper and pencil is not a viable option in this day and age. The department bought fingerprint scanners to track officers, but haven’t been able to explain why they haven’t been used. This is not acceptable.

We also like Mr. Harrison’s plan for the department to use civilian employees to do more of the desk work while leaving patrol, investigations and other jobs more connected to crime-solving to the cops. This is an old idea that also never quite seems to get done.

There are occasions when overtime is necessary. Detectives sometimes have to grind a case for hours to investigate a lead and make an arrest. The Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention paid for overtime expenses involved in an investigation of gang activity in the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello neighborhood in Northeast Baltimore. The four-month investigation led to the arrest of 14 people (with more to come) and the confiscation of drugs and cash. We hope the state will step up to help again because a safer Baltimore is a good for the entire state.

Still, the police department has overspent its overtime budget for years, and it’s time it was brought under control. Police officers shouldn’t make more than the mayor. They shouldn’t be able to double their salaries by working extra time. The message needs to trickle down to officers that they are not entitled to overtime and they shouldn’t depend on it to pay their bills.

We hope that Mr. Harrison, who has heard sentiments of many council members in curbing overtime, is the one who is finally able to get the issue under control.

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