The Real Police Overtime Scandals: NMA Weekly E-Newsletter #507

Much has been written about the Massachusetts State Police Overtime Scandal. A number of officers have been arrested for federal counts of embezzlement for allegedly cutting hours or outright skipping overtime (OT) traffic enforcement shifts on the MA turnpike while getting paid in full. Forty-two members of Troop E have been implicated and the troop itself has now been eliminated by state police.

At least four Louisiana state troopers have been charged for falsifying times on traffic tickets written supposedly during overtime shifts. Officers were charged following a statewide investigation of the Local Area Compensated Enforcement, a somewhat controversial traffic-ticket program intended to raise money for district attorneys, public defenders and other law enforcement agencies.

For the taxpayers’ sake, let’s hope these isolated violations of police overtime are outliers. But these two instances of police misconduct don’t even touch the real scandals of police overtime. The bigger issue that few people know: More and more agencies have to force overtime upon their officers because they just simply do not have enough manpower and police working overtime means more stress and perhaps even worse, bad policing.

For example, an audit at the San Jose, California Police Department found OT had doubled since 2008 because the department could not find enough qualified personnel to fill vacancies. In a city of just over a million people, the force needs 800 officers at any given time. In March 2018, a city spokesman said that the department already had 50 less officers than the previous year when it was already well below the 800 threshold.

At some point, police shortages become a public safety issue.

Large cities and small towns are affected because of retirements and decreasing number of recruits. Law enforcement has become a less desirable career choice due to pay and the high risk to personal safety. The hours are terrible too.

Another factor—when the economy is good, police recruitment suffers too. Major Cities Chiefs Association Executive Director Darrel Stephens explained in a recent interview, “A blossoming job market means more career choices. Police departments can’t always keep up with perks other professions in the private sector may offer. Salary and benefits have declined in many departments.”

New enforcement programs can also create OT such as a city council deciding to start or continue a red-light camera program. Denton, Texas PD recently did an audit on their ticket camera program and found that at least three supervisors were paid tens of thousands of dollars in OT to view video of supposed red-light camera violations.

Austin, Texas is now justifying more red-light cameras after an audit showed the city simply does not have enough officers for traffic enforcement. This specious argument has often been used by the camera companies as a selling point of their systems. How often have cities had the luxury of a large enough police force — other than perhaps small speed trap towns like Damascus, Arkansas — to place officers at many of its signalized intersections for the purposes of traffic enforcement?

Research shows that officers, just like the rest of us, have fatigue from long hours that can affect the public’s safety. Many officers work a second job exacerbating the fatigue further. Couple this with overnight shifts and you get the picture.

According to the most recent federal Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics survey, only a third of law enforcement agencies limit how many overtime hours sworn personnel may work while a little over half have a ceiling on off-duty hours. OT restrictions that do exist often are lenient. Many enforcement agencies don’t monitor or audit OT at all (which is one of the issues in the MA State Police Scandal noted earlier). Some departments allow 18 work hours over a 24-hour period.

Washington State University sleep deprivation researcher Lois James found that inadequate sleep may heighten pre-existing implicit biases. She also said, “From an officer safety perspective, there are serious consequences of fatigue.” Routine tasks can be affected such as driving a patrol car as well as exercising overall judgement.

A study published in Police Quarterly on the Phoenix Police Department compared officers working 10-hour shifts with those working 13-hour shifts. The biggest difference between the two groups: Officers in the 13-hour shift group had a significantly higher number of citizen complaints than the 10-hour group.

Currently, there are no state or federal mandates on police work hours and many times, union contracts determine OT. Unions generally oppose restrictions on hours worked.

As police departments rely on lucrative quota-based traffic enforcement federal grants funneled through states, more OT pay is expected. Cops like the extra cash but will they be ready to do their jobs adequately if they just pulled a 16-hour shift, especially if they have to do it over and over again since there are less cops to protect and serve?

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