Boston Police officials are contemplating the use of computerized time cards to ensure that officers don’t plump their checks with questionable overtime appearances in court. But there is a low-tech solution, as well: Unless officers are called to appear at a hearing by a prosecutor, they don’t belong in court — at least not at taxpayers’ expense.
A Globe review found that Boston officers collected more than 400 hours of overtime pay over two years for court appearances that were not officially requested by prosecutors. The problem was especially acute among officers in the drug unit. The police department has audited overtime activity in three courthouses, flagging about 300 suspicious filings. Ten officers were disciplined as a result.
Boston Police commissioner Edward Davis says there are no “major problems’’ in how the department assigns and oversees overtime appearances in court. Many of the cases, he said, can be explained by the decisions of sergeants to dispatch officers to court. But other than when an officer substitutes for an absent colleague, the decision-making process is unclear.
There’s room for debate about what constitutes a major or systemic problem. But before Davis sounds the all-clear signal, he should wait for the results of an audit of all of the courthouses in the city, not just three.
There clearly is waste in the police overtime system. The contractual guarantee of four hours of overtime for a court appearance is part of the problem. Such payments are understandable when an officer is called in on a day off. But not when a hearing is postponed or cancelled, as is now the case.
This year, the department has earmarked 11 percent of the total budget for overtime.
Police departments typically spend up to 6 percent of their budgets on overtime, including court appearances. In Boston, that figure has pushed 15 percent in recent years. This year, the department has earmarked $30 million — 11 percent of the total police budget — for overtime. That alone indicates a problem.
The judicious use of police overtime for coverage of criminal hotspots and special events is part of what makes Boston a safe city. But it is just as clear that some officers are working overtime as a way to beat the system.