Detectives balk at rules on overtime Homicide unit police must get OK before working longer hours

Officers called demoralized

Commanders defend moves to eliminate unneeded expenses

November 08, 1997|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

In an effort to reduce runaway overtime in the city Police Department's homicide unit, commanders have introduced rules that detectives say hamper their ability to investigate and solve slayings.

The rules bar detectives from discussing cases with prosecutors at night or on weekends except in emergencies, restrict the number of detectives who may attend an autopsy and require everyone to get approval from a supervisor before working overtime.

"To solve cases you have to be on the street," one detective said. "You can't do this job sitting in the office. But [commanders] are saying, 'Get it done in eight hours or don't get it done at all.' "

Other investigators describe the unit as demoralized and cautioned that the rules could lead to the loss of seasoned detectives, similar to the departure of at least six of the most experienced detectives two years ago when a controversial plan to rotate officers through different jobs was proposed.

But top commanders insist they are trying to better manage their money by cutting unnecessary expenses in a unit that has the highest overtime budget in the department.

"We do not compromise a case at the expense of a dollar," said Col. John E. Gavrilis, chief of the Criminal Investigation Bureau. "There is no change. All we have done is asked everyone to ensure that overtime is justified. It's that simple."

Police officials said they discovered unusually high overtime during a routine audit this year. One detective earned as much as $13,000 in overtime in three months, the audit found. Overtime has increased as the number of killings has dropped and fewer are being solved.

Lt. Ben Lieu, who heads homicide's operations squad, said the new guidelines mainly cover routine aspects of investigations. He said detectives are encouraged to make appointments with prosecutors during regular work hours when possible.

A breaking case, Lieu said, always will be afforded overtime, because the first 24 to 48 hours are critical to solving the case. But routine interviews or neighborhood canvasses in a 4-month-old slaying will be more closely scrutinized.

"Is it necessary that it be done at time and a half?" the lieutenant said, "or can it be done during the regular tour of duty? I think detectives are grumbling but they don't know exactly what they are grumbling about. I would challenge any detective to come in here and say that he couldn't interview a critical witness or suspect in a case."

Those detectives interviewed, all of whom spoke only if they were not identified, said cases are being shortchanged in subtle ways. Interviews with potential witnesses are being rescheduled avoid overtime, fewer detectives help each other and they are using time that could be used investigating to complete paperwork.

As a result, officers say they are giving only cursory attention to less noteworthy slayings.

"It all depends on who is dead," one detective said. "If it's a routine case, then investigators will be held under the new policy. If someone of note gets killed, or someone of a particular ethnic group dies, then the floodgates open, and you can do anything to solve the case."

Detectives said the suspension last month of a detective under investigation for overtime abuse gave commanders a "green light" to institute restrictions.

The accused detective was removed from the homicide unit and transferred to a desk job in Central Records. Police sources say the internal investigation division is reviewing overtime slips submitted by each of the 58 investigators in the past year.

Precise figures on salaries and overtime were difficult to obtain this week, and officials could not say whether the overtime budget for the homicide unit is overdrawn and could only offer some comparison figures for previous years.

The budgeted salary for the Criminal Investigation Bureau in this fiscal year is about $12 million (of a total department budget of $215 million). Budgeted overtime is $567,698. Of that, $414,000 is earmarked for the crimes against persons section, which includes homicide, crimes against property and special investigations.

The average homicide detective earns a base salary of $40,000 a year, and investigators said they earn about $12,000 a year in overtime. Sources said one detective earned more than $85,000 last year, making him the second-highest paid officer in the 3,200-member department behind the police commissioner, who is paid $115,000 a year.

A recent audit of the homicide unit showed no pattern. For example, in a two-week pay period in April, detectives earned $36,000 in overtime, compared with $27,000 in the same period last year.

For the eight-week period audited, detectives earned $136,000 in overtime this year, compared with $123,000 last year. Detectives investigated 50 slayings in those two months this year and 60 during the period last year.

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