BALTIMORE – The Baltimore Police Department plans to use a fingerprint scan to check officers in and out. The new system will require officers to scan their fingerprints at the start and end of shifts in order to prove they’ve worked the hours claimed on their payslips, officials have confirmed to The Baltimore Sun.
The department struggles to control ongoing overtime spending of nearly a million dollars a week. Moreover, the problem is front and center amid the ongoing federal trial of two Gun Trace Task Force officers whose corrupt colleagues have admitted to rampant overtime fraud by the unit.
“Let’s not sugarcoat this: Criminals found a gap in the system and took full advantage of it,” T.J. Smith, a department spokesman, said Wednesday. “That’s not fair to the city, and it’s not fair to the men and women in this agency who do their job honorably every day.”
In their effort to remedy the abuse, Smith said the department is in the early phases of implementing the new biometric technology. The agency has purchased some hardware, but do not have an estimate for when officers will begin using it or how much the system will cost.
Furthermore, Smith said adoption of the finger print scanning system is not about a lack of trust in officers and supervisors to tell the truth on their time sheets, but “instilling a layer of trust in the community that we are doing something” about the vulnerability of the current paper-based overtime and payroll system to fraud.
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“We’re not just going to say, ‘Oh well,’ and everybody crosses their fingers and hopes we do better in the future,” Smith said. “We’re taking steps to make sure we do better.”
The Sun reports, according to multiple current and former commanders in the department, the underlying hope is that the technology will not only halt outright corruption, but curtail a longstanding culture within the department in which frontline supervisors — lieutenants and sergeants — use unearned overtime and other unapproved paid time off as an “internal currency” for motivating and rewarding proactive policing.
In the Gun Trace Task Force case officers are accused of overtime fraud. As a result, some have admitted to the financial gain through deceit. Additionally, investigation has revealed that some officers claimed overtime pay while on vacation or while gambling at a local casino.
Yet corruption was not the sole motivator. “Slash days” have been awarded to officers for good work. But the time off granted by supervisors is unofficial and off the books.
Former Detective Maurice Ward, one of six officers who have pleaded guilty in the case, testified that unearned overtime pay was used in the department to motivate officers.
Consequently, several commanders who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the department said the actions of the gun unit were criminal and in no way reflected common practices, but the practice of frontline supervisors using “slash days” — or “g days,” when a gun seizure is being rewarded — is more “widespread,” despite not being sanctioned by top leadership.
In a city decimated by violence, supervisors are desperate for ways to keep officers motivated, according to the commanders. Morale-crushing crime is rampant. As a result, they said the practice goes back years.
“You would hear squads say, ‘Yeah, we got five guns last week, so we got five g days,” one former commander said. “Some districts were well known for it. Some supervisors were well known for it.”
“It’s a well-known, not-talked-about secret,” said another former commander. He said he saw slash days used to motivate officers, to reward them, and to get them to work undesirable details. “I don’t think that the overwhelming majority of supervisors who are doing it think that they are doing anything wrong. They think that they are looking out for guys who are working hard.”
One commander welcomes the new fingerprint system to check in and out. He said people think they are owed additional time off for simply doing their job.
“Unless you have a way to track where people are when they say they’re working, particularly overtime, then there is always going to be abuse,” he said.
For years, the police department has far exceeded its overtime budget. Last year, it budgeted $16 million for overtime and spent $44.9 million.
Much of that spending is to cover patrol shortages, the department says. Officials have said the department is hundreds of officers short, and that a scheduling structure in the officers’ contract — four days on, three days off — is forcing it to draft officers to work additional overtime shifts during the week to maintain necessary staffing levels.
Yet what is unreported is the amount of overtime required to quell riotous behavior in the city stained by criminal conduct.
Current and former commanders say overtime is a necessary component of every police department’s budget, as police must respond to unforeseen emergencies—like riots.
But the fraud revealed in the Gun Trace Task Force case has forced the city to take remedial action. With record levels of violent crime and ballooning overtime expenditures despite a half-a-billion-dollar police budget have required a new reckoning with the problem within City Hall.
After the Gun Trace Task Force officers were indicted in March, Mayor Catherine Pugh ordered an overtime audit, which she said she wanted completed “as soon as possible.”
“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,” she said at the time.
However, the audit remains incomplete. Could it have something to do with the amount of overtime paid to deal with riotous behavior in addition to small pockets of corruption?
City Solicitor Andre Davis said Wednesday he could not discuss the status of the audit because it is “an integral part of ongoing litigation” around a police union lawsuit against the city claiming unpaid overtime.
Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, was unavailable for comment.
The current and former commanders who spoke with The Sun said the audit would not be easy, in part because the payroll systems in place to track overtime have been inadequate for so long.
Officers put in for overtime by using paper forms that must be filled out by hand and then entered manually by clerks. The computer system in which overtime is logged lacks clear categories that distinguish the reasons for the work, making it more difficult to track and justify.
Smith said the logistics for the new biometric program have not all been worked out, but the department is not the first “large organization with a lot of moving parts” to introduce such a system, and is confident it will improve its payroll process.
“This is not any type of groundbreaking thing that we’re coming up with,” he said. “This is technology that exists.”