Weeks after federal authorities charged nine current and former Boston police officers with running an overtime scam, a city councilor wants to scrutinize the department’s overtime protocols.
“We shouldn’t just trust our departments necessarily to be the entire check and balance,” said Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, a former public defender, in a Tuesday phone interview.
Arroyo’s hearing order states that “repeated instances of BPD overtime fraud indicate continued failure to ensure or enforce oversight protocols and significantly contribute to deterioration of public trust in law enforcement agencies.”
He wants the council to hold a hearing to discuss oversight of Boston police overtime and for representatives from the department and the Suffolk district attorney’s office, as well as civil rights advocates, to be invited to testify.
Boston police spokesman Sergeant Detective John Boyle said Tuesday the department is reviewing Arroyo’s proposal.
Arroyo has multiple questions about the court overtime process for police. Such overtime is mostly tracked and documented via paperwork, not electronic records, Arroyo said, making it hard to conduct audits. Court overtime for police, he said, typically costs the city between $9 million and $12 million a year.
He is also concerned with documented instances where officers allege to be in court but other reports place them out in public, making an arrest, pulling someone over, or conducting a field interrogation and observation.
“We have officers in two places at once,” said Arroyo. “That’s impossible.”
The frequency of such occurrences, said Arroyo, is difficult to determine since no one outside of Boston police has a complete accounting of all police reports to compare against overtime court slips. But from his own research of available data he received in part from a request for police records, Arroyo alleged it does happen.
Arroyo also questioned how officers could receive court overtime, which would require that they be off duty, and also be performing on-duty functions at the same time or around the same time they checkin to court. Police contracts require officers to be paid a 4-hour minimum for court appearances. Arroyo questions whether the current system can be trusted to accurately document overtime.
“As it works right now, it’s clearly not working,” he said of police overtime oversight. “It’s a real problem.”
Councilor Kenzie Bok said Tuesday that additional controls are the only way the city is “going to both detect fraud and reduce our overtime budget sustainably.” She thought it was important for the council to ask the department and Walsh’s administration what measures it has in place and what additional steps will be taken for overtime oversight.
“I think it’s a critical discussion,” said Bok.
Councilor Lydia Edwards said in a Tuesday statement the council has had a “great conversation” regarding police overtime.
“I look forward to continuing that conversation on accountability measures,” she said.
In early September, authorities alleged a group of Boston police falsified time sheets to collect more than $200,000 over three years. Federal officials said officers ran the scheme out of the department’s evidence warehouse. Prosecutors accused the officers, including a lieutenant and two officers still in the department, of claiming they had worked full overtime shifts to clear an evidence backlog, when they worked only a portion of that time. According to a federal indictment, three supervisors not only took part in the scam, but approved the false reports.
Boston police Commissioner William Gross said the department’s anticorruption unit discovered the payroll abuses within the evidence management unit.
Wednesday’s discussion will follow months of intense council debate regarding Boston police overtime. The subject was at the heart of a contentious operating budget vote earlier in the summer. Mayor Martin J. Walsh, in a resubmitted budget proposal that came amid widespread demonstrations protesting police brutality, called for reallocating $12 million from Boston police overtime spending to social services and community programs.
For some councilors, however, the rerouting of the $12 million did not do enough to dismantle structural racism. In a contentious vote, the council passed the $3.61 billion operating budget, 8-5.
In the aftermath of the budget vote, councilors said they wanted to see structural changes to make the overtime reduction a reality, since police overtime is one of the few line items in the city’s operating budget that is allowed to exceed its allotment, as it did for the last fiscal year.
Later in the summer, Boston police officials told city councilors that, on average, 94 positions are back-filled each day to replace officers who are out and still meet mandatory minimum staffing levels, which is a major factor that drives overtime costs. The everyday vacancies stemmed from sickness, injury, and vacation, among other reasons.
In a statement Tuesday, Councilor Andrea Campbell, who has spearheaded an effort to establish a civilian review board for police misconduct, said that city authorities have yet to demonstrate how the police overtime budget can be reduced and said that it troubling to hear of potential overtime abuses, which she said “underscores the need for effective oversight.”
“Real transparency and accountability is part of building public trust with law enforcement, and I am proud that the Council continues to lead on this issue,” she said.
Last month, a task force appointed by Walsh called for Boston police to increase transparency and accountability within its fledgling police body camera program, to diversify its ranks, and to expand training for implicit bias among officers. It also recommended the creation of a new, independent agency that would be empowered to review all allegations of police misconduct and use of force, with the ability to subpoena witnesses.
Milton J. Valencia, Matt Rocheleau, and Gal Tziperman Lotan of Globe staff contributed to this report.