In an attempt to fight what officials call rampant overtime fraud, the Baltimore Police Department are turning to tech, Gizmodo reports. Officers in the Department’s employ will now be obligated to scan their fingerprints, rather than punch a time clock, in order to clock in and out of their shifts. The change, coming in the wake of a wide-ranging corruption scandal, is designed to stem an epidemic of overtime spending, which currently sees the police department pay out an extra $1 million every week.
Overtime Fraud Scandal Grips Baltimore PD
In 2017, the Baltimore Police Department budgeted $16 million to cover overtime wage obligations. It spent nearly three that amount, $44.9 million. The overage is due, in part, to “an informal overtime system,” according to Gizmodo, in which officers who confiscated large hauls of contraband would be rewarded for their efforts with unreported, and paid, time off.
At the center of the scheme is the department’s Trace Task Force, a now-disbanded group of elite officers who were gathered to get guns off of Baltimore’s streets. Instead, federal investigators say, the Task Force’s nine members used their position to steal from the city’s residents. Of the Task Force’s nine original members, six have now pleaded guilty to racketeering charges, with four testifying for federal prosecutors.
Elite Task Force Robbed City Residents
The task force was a vehicle for corruption, according to agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, who began looking into accusations of misconduct in 2015. What they found, as federal court documents attest, was shocking.
The Task Force planted evidence, carrying toy guns to drop if they were involved in a shooting with unarmed suspects. They invaded private residences without warrants, lying to residents about the legal basis for their searches along the way. They shook down suspected drug dealers, demanding thousands of dollars as they posed as federal officials. In March 2016, officers from the Task Force stole a man’s house keys, broke into his home (without a warrant) and stole cocaine and over $100,000.
Officers Made Off With Thousands In Overtime
And, to top it all of, the Task Force stole thousands of dollars in unearned overtime from the City of Baltimore. The scheme was simple enough. To incentivize its officers, supervisors at the Baltimore Police Department offered them “G” days, or slash days. Get a gun off the street and you’d get one “G” day, a paid day off of work.
“It’s a well-known, not-talked-about secret,” one former police commander told reporters at the Baltimore Sun. But some officers, including those who comprised the Trace Task Force, would claim overtime hours on their slash days. One officer claimed overtime wages for time he spent on vacation. Another did so while, in reality, he was at the casino. And yet another earned overtime during the month he took off for a home remodel.
Understaffed & Struggling To Police
As it stands, the Baltimore Police Department is understaffed, “hundreds of officers short” where it should be, the Sun says. And overtime is a crucial tool in staffing the Department, as supervisors attempt to incentivize officers to respond to unpredictable situations. But the scandal surrounding the Trace Task Force, as well as reports of systemic overtime fraud, have forced Baltimore’s lawmakers to take a second look at the police force’s pay policies.
“We allow police overtime to run up when a lot of other areas of the city, like schools, housing and parks and recreation, could benefit from that money,” says Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh. In March, Pugh ordered a full audit of the police department’s overtime practices, responding quickly to the federal indictment of the Task Force officers.
Baltimore Officers File FLSA Overtime Lawsuit
Meanwhile, Baltimore is facing a lawsuit of its own, this one filed by a police union that accuses the City of failing to pay officers overtime in accordance with the Fair Labor Standards Act, a federal law that governs minimum wage and overtime requirements. Lieutenant Gene Ryan, current President of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, says he’s never heard of an officer receiving overtime for hours they didn’t actually work.
Despite their differences, both Pugh and Ryan support Baltimore’s new plan for “biometric” overtime approval. Taking fingerprints to confirm clock-in and clock-out times could “help with gaining the trust of the public,” Ryan told the Baltimore Sun. He’s also hopeful that a more technologically-advanced solution could help officers get paid quicker. The current paper-based approach often leads to payroll backups.
Public Trust In Police Wanes As Crime Soars
Ryan is right about at least one thing: Baltimore’s residents have lost their faith in the police department. Just one year before the Trace Task Force scandal broke, a leaked copy of the Justice Department’s 163-page report on policing in Baltimore described a department in complete disarray. Investigators from the DOJ found evidence of racial disparities, including blatantly discriminatory practices, at every level of policing in the City.
As Vox wrote at the time, “Baltimore police stop people for essentially no reason, especially black residents. They are far too quick to use force […] Cops regularly violate people’s rights, including those protected by the First Amendment and the Fourth Amendment. And virtually everyone is aware of these types of problems.”
Meanwhile, the City’s crime rates continue to soar, in part, residents say, due to a relaxed style of policing that comes as a response to several high-profile officer-involved killings, including the death of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old man whose spinal cord broke because he wasn’t restrained inside a police van. In 2017, at least 343 Baltimore residents were murdered, marking the third-straight year to reach that level, a new record.
Officials Put Hope In Overtime Fingerprint Program
Baltimore’s biometric technology hasn’t been implemented yet, the Baltimore Sun reports. While the police department has already purchased some of the hardware required, BPD spokesperson T.J. Smith isn’t sure when they’ll begin actually using it, or how much establishing the fingerprint system will cost.
And, despite the reports of rampant overtime abuse, Smith says the idea of fingerprinting officers wasn’t borne from a lack of trust in officers. It’s about “instilling a layer of trust in the community that we are doing something,” he said.
Fraud is only one problem the new biometric overtime program is meant to fix. Officials also hope that a more-robust payroll surveillance system will curtail the unofficial use of “G” days, which help to encourage the sort of proactive policing that Baltimore has been criticized for.