Is this what the thin blue line is meant to be — a go-along-to-get-along culture that winks and nods at overtime abuses and falsified records?
The federal indictment of nine current and former Boston Police officers for such abuses casts a pall over a department with a long and proud history. But even worse, it casts doubt on everything else these officers may have touched — every case in which one may have testified or handled evidence.
And it raises questions about the mayors and city councilors who negotiated and approved one union contract after another that made a mockery of sound management and opened the door to these kinds of abuses.
It’s ultimately up to them — Mayor Walsh, whose office negotiates union contracts, and the city council, which approves them — to insist on changes to the contract to eliminate overtime as a regular feature of policing.
The charges couldn’t have come at a worse time, when as US Attorney Andrew Lelling noted in announcing the arrests last Wednesday, “Beyond the theft of funds, this kind of official misconduct also erodes trust in public institutions, at a time when that trust is most needed.”
Those charged include three officers currently on the force (all now suspended without pay) and six who retired over the last 18 months while the investigation was underway. They are charged with conspiring to pad their salaries collectively with some $200,000 in overtime pay for hours they did not work. All were members of the police department’s Evidence Control Unit and assigned to the department warehouse in Hyde Park, where seized evidence needed in future court proceedings is stored.
It was their role in maintaining the chain of evidence that prompted Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins to issue a statement the day of their arrest saying, “This behavior certainly calls into question their credibility. Whatever testimony they may have given in any Suffolk County prosecution during that time is now suspect.”
Rollins has notified public defenders and other members of the defense bar that her office will “thoroughly review” any cases involving the nine officers that they bring to her attention.
Sadly, charges of overtime abuse in policing are nothing new around here. The wide-ranging scandal involving some 50 members of the State Police, nine of whom pleaded guilty in federal court and two who pleaded guilty in state court, resulted in the dismantling of an entire unit and calls for further reform. Many of those proposed reforms are still pending as part of a broader legislative police reform package.
But even at the BPD, overtime scandals are a back-to-the-future moment. In 2012, parallel investigations by BPD Internal Affairs and the Globe found a pattern of abuse in overtime related to court appearances by members of the department’s drug unit. It seemed several officers would show up at district court, collect their contract-mandated four hours of overtime when, in fact, they had not been summoned by the district attorney’s office to be there at all.
The department audit resulted in 10 officers being disciplined — most with slap-on-the-wrist suspensions — and one being allowed to retire. The scam involved a supervisor OK’ing that overtime.
In the current federal case, an efficient management system would have eliminated the need for overtime altogether. According to the indictment, the scheme involved scheduled 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. “purge” overtime shifts for either inventorying or actually disposing of items, including narcotics, at the warehouse, and a monthly Saturday shift to collect items, including prescription drugs, from around the districts and taking them to an incinerator in Saugus.
Now, a business that knew it needed staff one Saturday a month and several evenings a month would simply program its workforce accordingly to avoid overtime. But BPD union contracts are rife with provisions baking overtime into the system — not for public emergencies but for utterly routine business.
And what the department should have learned long ago is that where there is that kind of nonemergency, “routine” overtime, there is the potential for abuse.
As the Globe reported earlier this year, the BPD payroll has increased by $125 million — or 43 percent — since 2011. But overtime during the same period has skyrocketed by 84 percent — some $35.5 million. Some of it no doubt in the interest of public safety, some of it because one city administration after another has bowed to union demands for overtime that shouldn’t exist at all, and some of it, according to the federal indictment, because supervisors become participants in abusing an already generous system.
To the department’s credit, these instances were unearthed by the BPD’s own anti-corruption unit, according to Commissioner William Gross, and ultimately turned over to federal investigators.
But still, the culture that gave rise to it needs fixing. Nothing really happened to those found abusing the system in 2012 — and so the takeaway was that nothing would. If the next union contract the city negotiates doesn’t put an end to regular overtime, the council should reject it as the fiscally imprudent system it is.
This time, the ground under Schroeder Plaza is shifting, and a wink and nod at bad behavior is no longer acceptable. This time is different because this time it has to be.
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