Boston police officers collected more than 400 hours of overtime pay over a two-year period for court appearances that were not officially requested by the prosecutors overseeing the cases, according to a Globe analysis of a costly system that police acknowledge has been ripe for abuse.
The 32 officers, from the department’s drug unit, received pay for 91 instances in which they said they were called to testify in court for trials, case conferences, or motions hearings — claims that were not backed up by copies of court notices kept by the Suffolk district attorney’s office.
The Globe discovered the pattern as part of a review of 40 cases between 2008 and 2010 that appeared to draw an excessive number of officers to court on the taxpayers’ dime. In each case, the Globe compared the list of officers who had received overtime for the case with the list of those who had been summoned by the district attorney’s office, which is primarily responsible for calling officers to hearings.
Boston police disputed the findings, saying that in each of the cases a sergeant who supervises squads in the Police Department’s drug unit had ordered the officer to court, or the prosecutor had verbally asked the officer to appear.
“The sergeant has the option of bringing more people in as necessary,” Commissioner Edward F. Davis said. “As long as the sergeant signs off on it, the department is satisfied that it was appropriate.”
Davis said that department rules allow a supervisor to order officers to court.
But that is contrary to the procedure officially agreed upon by police and prosecutors more than a decade ago, according to Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley’s office.
Police officers sent in by their supervisor do not appear in court in an official capacity, said Conley’s spokesman, Jake Wark. “If the supervisor sends additional officers to court dates when they’re not summonsed in, they’ll simply be spectators in the gallery,” Wark said. “At the end of the day, the prosecutor trying the case is in the best position to plan out his or her witness list.”
Prosecutors, who decide whom to call based on police reports and interviews with the squad, are instructed to e-mail, fax, or hand an officer a notice to appear in court, even if they have to call in an officer at the last minute, Wark said.
“A paper record and proper documentation provide transparency, accountability, and layers of review,” Wark said. “It would be a violation to verbally summons an officer with no documentation.”
Court overtime has long been a costly burden on the department’s budget. Last year, the department spent $8.6 million, with the drug control unit charging $1.8 million. The department has defended the cost by saying officers have no choice but to respond when they are called to court by prosecutors.
But officers can also abuse the system, taking advantage of management flaws and clumsy record-keeping. In the last month, the department has disciplined 10 officers, including one sergeant detective, who it said collected overtime pay when they were not called to court or were in court longer than they were needed. Another sergeant detective retired with similar charges pending. The department said it is implementing changes to catch abuse more easily.
Officers are paid for four hours of automatic overtime even if they are only in court for half an hour. They are paid time and a half for each hour they work beyond four hours.
One officer, Sean Deery, who worked in the West Roxbury drug unit, was suspended for 10 days without pay because the department said he altered a court-issued notice-to-appear, by adding the names of other officers so they could receive overtime pay.
The 10 officers were disciplined following an internal audit that examined hundreds of cases in three courthouses around the city, over a period of time ranging from 12 to 18 months in 2010 and 2011. The audit found 300 to 350 instances of court overtime filings by drug unit officers that appeared to be questionable and forwarded those cases to Internal Affairs for investigation.
The audit was ordered in February 2011, following allegations that four officers in the West Roxbury drug unit showed up for a court hearing for which they had not received a notice to appear. The Globe launched its review at the same time.
The department learned of potential abuse after the prosecutor in the case alerted a police sergeant who is supposed to monitor officers coming in and out of court and sign their overtime slips.
The bulk of the problems discovered in the internal audit and subsequent Internal Affairs investigation were in West Roxbury District Court, where the 10 disciplined officers had claimed overtime. About 30 cases in Dorchester District Court are still being reviewed. In Brighton District Court, Internal Affairs is still investigating 25 instances when officers did not go to court when they had been scheduled to appear, and instead took a paid detail, another overtime opportunity.
Despite the findings, Davis said the audit and subsequent Internal Affairs investigation “revealed no major problems.”
“We were looking for systemic issues that we felt could be driving the expenditure of court time,” he said. “We didn’t find that.”
Still, police acknowledge they have had to change the system. They are exploring the possibility of computer cards to track when officers go in and out of court. The audit recommended a centralized electronic subpoena system that would monitor court appearances in real time.
One immediate change involved court overtime slips. Previously, officers submitting paperwork for court overtime could write down only one case number, even if they were called to appear for multiple cases in a single day. This made it more difficult to track down where the officer went after the first case and whether there was a basis for additional overtime pay, said Lieutenant Detective Robert Merner, head of the drug unit.
The Globe’s analysis focused on a sampling of court cases in the drug unit, which handles hundreds of cases a year.
In Roxbury District Court, the Globe found that three officers each collected between four and six-and-a-half hours of overtime in a 2009 cocaine distribution case. According to payroll records, the officers said they came to court at 8:30 a.m. But the court records show officers were called repeatedly the morning of the case and failed to appear. The judge dismissed the case and shortly afterward, the prosecutor told Judge Kenneth Fiandaca she could not continue with a subsequent case because the officer had not appeared for that one either.
Fiandaca sounded frustrated, according to an audiotape of the hearing.
“When a police witness, any witness, but in particular a professional police witness, who is a representative of the Commonwealth and is part of the Commonwealth’s case in these matters, has been properly summonsed, it’s incumbent upon the Commonwealth to be sure that they can be here on that trial date,” he told the prosecutor.
Asked about the case, police said the officers eventually showed up that day and the case was continued. But one of the defendants never returned to court and a warrant is still out for his arrest.
Police auditors are still reviewing cases at Roxbury District Court.
The Globe also found 20 instances of police officers claiming overtime even after a court hearing had ended.
Merner said in those cases, the officers went to other court sessions or participated in other investigations.
Gerry Sanfilippo, president of the Boston police detectives union, said that two of the detectives cited by Internal Affairs were accused of claiming more overtime than they were entitled to. But, Sanfilippo said, those detectives, identified by the department as Timothy Stanton and Sergeant Detective William Woodley, said they continued working after their court appearances.
“They’re upset by what happened,” Sanfilippo said. “They don’t quite understand why they have been singled out and why they’re being disciplined for something that people did before them.”
Sanfilippo said he is concerned that officers have been unfairly punished.
“If someone legitimately did something wrong, they should be disciplined,” he said. “Discipline is supposed to be fair and equitable. There is something here that doesn’t quite seem to meet the eye.”
Sanfilippo questioned why sergeants supervising the courts were not disciplined, since they are supposed to monitor when officers leave the court.
But a department spokeswoman said there was no wrongdoing found on the part of court supervisors. Those officers disciplined had no “plausible reason” for being in court, she said.
Thomas Drechsler, the union lawyer representing the eight disciplined patrol officers, said they settled for suspensions, which ranged from one day to 30 days, or transfers, in order to move on with their careers. “They all just wanted to put this behind them,” he said, adding that the settlements were not an admission of any wrongdoing.
The audit findings stressed that although court overtime abuse appears limited, “that cannot be said with full certainty without conducting an audit and or review at all courts attended by Boston officers.”
Superintendent-in-Chief Daniel Linskey said the department is still considering how to review cases in other courts.
Said Linskey: “We might want to be random and make sure the system is in place to make sure we’re using taxpayers dollars wisely.”
As a result of the department’s audit, Officers Dana Barrett, Mary Rooney, Michael Brown, Jahad Hasan, Richard Diaz, and Anthony Cutone received one-day suspensions and Officer John Downey and Stanton got a three-day suspension for claiming more overtime than they were due; Deery served 10 days of a 30-day suspension for submitting a slip that went past his end time and altering a notice to appear; Sergeant Detective William Robertson retired with several charges pending, including inappropriately authorizing officers to appear in court; and Woodley got a 60-day suspension, with 20 days to serve, for authorizing officers to appear in court without proper notice and submitting a slip that went past the court end time.