The costs — and risks — of police overtime abuse
There’s a wide chasm between overtime that beefs up police presence when street violence boils over in Chicago neighborhoods and overtime that simply pads an officer’s paycheck. Chicago Inspector General Joseph Ferguson just issued a scathing report that takes the Chicago Police Department to task for the latter. The report lays out how the Police Department’s overtime system invites abuse, which has led to the waste of millions of taxpayer dollars and the potential for overworked, fatigued officers.
Ferguson looked at the department’s regular duty overtime practices from 2014 through the first six months of 2016. In its response to Ferguson’s report, the department defends its overtime practices. “CPD is confident that the vast majority of its overtime is legitimate, reasonable and necessary.”
Really? The IG’s reports says $27.6 million in overtime lacked any record of authorization or approval. More than 9 of every 10 overtime entries, amounting to $225.5 million, were recorded with either blank or generic reasons for the overtime, making it impossible to determine whether a given instance of overtime pay was justified. And for regular duty overtime, the department still relies on a pen-and-paper routine that requires 61 timekeepers at a cost of $7.2 million a year.
A sampling of what Ferguson found: Some officers authorized their own overtime. Others paired up with colleagues and approved each other’s overtime pay. Others asked to be included in paperwork for arrests in which they had little involvement so they could earn overtime by showing up in court. Some anointed themselves “DUI specialists” and took over DUI arrests they didn’t make, just so they could appear in court and, yes, rake in overtime.
One officer’s overtime pay haul over a 2½-year stretch: $336,000, thanks to more than 900 instances of overtime. Another officer pulled in $290,000 in overtime during that period, and four others collected $250,000 each.
The city spent nearly $575 million on police overtime from 2011 through 2016. Each year, the amount CPD spent on overtime went up — from $42 million in 2011 to $146 million last year. And each year, CPD spent more than what was budgeted. Last year, overtime expenses were $66 million over budget.
There are valid reasons for law enforcement working extra hours in a city grappling with a homicide tally of more than 500 and climbing. But Ferguson is taking aim at abuse within a system that, as he says, lacks “a culture of accountability.”
Where’s the oversight to end the practice of “trolling,” in which officers volunteer for calls at or after the end of their shifts to accrue overtime? Why does CPD allow what Ferguson calls “lingering” — officers hanging around in court longer than needed, so they can qualify for overtime pay?
Abuse of overtime is a waste of money in a city already neck-deep in debt. But it also leads to officer fatigue, which, Ferguson says, ratchets up “the likelihood that officers will be injured on the job, (will get) involved in vehicle accidents or exercise poor judgment under stress.” He’s got a laundry list of fixes. CPD is already moving ahead with some of them, like switching to an electronic record-keeping system and carrying out spot-check internal audits of timekeeping.
But the department bristles at Ferguson’s recommendation to limit the hours an officer can work in a given period — at CPD or other jobs. And though CPD says it will hold supervisors accountable for monitoring overtime, that’s a pledge Ferguson says CPD has made in the past without implementing it.
The aim of Ferguson’s report isn’t to constrain CPD’s ability to work overtime to keep Chicagoans and their streets safe. He has explained the nature and scale of overtime abuse. That’s what he’s drawing a bead on, and that’s what CPD should rectify — for the sake of the health and performance of its officers, and for the sake of safe neighborhoods.