Police abuse of overtime resistant to change

 

For years, Dade's criminal justice leaders have made largely ineffectual attempts to stem the costly, widespread police abuse of court overtime documented this week in The Herald. Top officials at Dade's three biggest police departments have issued numerous memos and regulations banning Collars for Dollars. Officers ignored the guidelines or maneuvered around them. They knew it didn't matter, because punishment was rare.

Not a single cop in recent memory has been prosecuted for piling on to a case and earning money, even though a County Court judge, a defense lawyer and three retired police commanders told The Herald they consider the practice to be theft. Even though officers were occasionally accused of wrongdoing, only two -- both from Miami -- faced serious consequences. One was demoted and then reinstated, the other fired while protesting his innocence. The police chiefs blame the worst abuse on a minority of "bad apples." But prosecutors and the rest of the legal system share in the blame. A flawed system All participate in a system that lacks accountability and sends contradictory messages to police. The police flock to traffic stops and then list each other as witnesses, even if their involvement in the case was slight. "You grow up with the feeling that if you're on a crime scene, you go to court, " Miami Police Chief Donald Warshaw said. "Still, there's a big difference between two officers and 10 officers showing up in court on a routine arrest. There's no reason for that." All of those cops end up going to court because prosecutors don't screen out the unnecessary witnesses in drunk driving cases and other misdemeanors. So police officers intent on abuse know how to take advantage of the lack of screening: Go to a scene, get listed in the paperwork, get a subpoena, go to court, make money. They call it piggybacking or Collars for Dollars. It doesn't work that way in Broward County and elsewhere in the United States. And it doesn't happen with Dade felony arrests, because prosecutors in those cases conduct interviews before issuing subpoenas so they can screen out non-essential witnesses. The practice spreads Dade police veterans believe the Collars for Dollars abuse began to get out of hand in the late 1980s, when federal grant money encouraged more drunk driving arrests and special DUI training for officers. The defense bar responded with more intricate courtroom challenges. As DUI enforcement became more sophisticated, the door opened for more officers to get involved in drunk driving arrests. It became harder for supervisors to determine which officers needed to go to court. "It's always difficult to monitor something you're not intimately acquainted with, " acknowledged Metro-Dade Police Cmdr. Harriet Janosky. It's not hard to find evidence that the police failed to police themselves. Follow this paper trail: In January 1993, the Dade state attorney's office asked Miami Beach Police to start coding the name of every officer listed on the back of an arrest form according to what that officer did on the case. The code was designed to help prosecutors screen out unnecessary officers. Prosecutors later proposed the same coding system to Miami officers. Code seldom used Yet today, police rarely use the code. "It's maybe one out of 10, " said Isis Perez, Dade's chief County Court prosecutor. She admitted that even in the rare case when police include the codes, the prosecutors don't follow them. In August 1995, Carlos Alvarez, then an assistant director for Metro-Dade Police, distributed a memo outlining six clear standards for when officers should be listed as witnesses. The standards required officers to have a direct role in a case. Yet The Herald found that Metro routinely sends officers to court on DUI cases who had little involvement in the police work and couldn't offer any unique testimony. "I wrote the memo, " Alvarez said recently. "I expected the commanders to follow through on it. Obviously, they haven't." For years, Miami Police officials wrote numerous memos tightening procedures and questioning officers to curtail piggybacking. Further efforts In late 1996, Miami instituted additional checks on arrest forms to attack the problem. "We began re-emphasizing some old practices, some forgotten practices, to make sure we didn't have just a paper policy, " Assistant Chief Raul Martinez said. "We are closely checking the back of those witness lists." Officers who earned large amounts of overtime were scrutinized, but rarely punished. And the department's court overtime costs continued to go up, to $3.2 million last year. "The overtime controls we have enacted don't appear to be having much results, " Assistant Chief Martinez wrote in a memo in November 1996. Since then, things have gotten a bit better. Miami Police say their controls led to a $233,184 drop in court overtime in the first six months of this year.

"We've made real efforts to bring the overtime down, " Chief Warshaw said. Miami Beach Police have also made strides to cut down on overtime abuse. They beefed up their court liaison office and computerized their overtime reporting system.

New steps taken When The Herald started making inquiries about Collars for Dollars, the police departments again took steps to curtail the abuse of court overtime. Metro Police opened an Internal Affairs investigation at their Doral district. Metro also stepped up installation of an internal computer tracking system that should catch potential cheaters. Miami Beach Police Chief Richard Barreto sent a memo to his department last week in anticipation of the Herald series. He said he had strengthened the review of arrest reports to ensure that only officers necessary to the prosecution of a case would be listed. The department is also planning to offer refresher classes in roadside testing so all officers can do the tests. "While we have accomplished a great deal, much work remains in the area of court overtime, " Barreto wrote. "For a Police Officer to misuse and manipulate the system and accept overtime when it was not necessary to a prosecution or not actually earned is wrong. This is a violation of departmental policy, and might also be a violation of law." Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said the Herald inquiry forced everybody in the system to examine how they were doing their jobs. "I guess nobody really sat down and looked at the system as a whole, and exposed it for what it was, " she said. "I suppose a system developed that allowed this abuse."

A TELLING ICON MIAMI BEACH POLICE COURT OVERTIME SLIPS USED TO INCLUDE A PICTURE OF A MONEY BAG ON THE LINE WHERE OFFICERS WROTE THE NUMBER OF HOURS THEY WERE TO BE PAID FOR COURT APPEARANCES. IF AN OFFICER CHOSE TIME OFF INSTEAD, THAT LINE WAS MARKED BY A HAMMOCK. BUT TOP BRASS CHANGED THE FORMS SOMETIME IN 1995. "I DIDN'T THINK EITHER WAS APPROPRIATE, " BEACH MAJOR STEVE ROBBINS SAID. "I KNEW AT SOME POINT, SOME REPORTER WOULD CALL ME AND SAY WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?" HOW MUCH MONEY COULD BE SAVED? IF THE PILOT PROGRAM EXPANDS THROUGHOUT COUNTY COURT, POLICE DEPARTMENTS PROJECT THESE ANNUAL SAVINGS: METRO-DADE $500,000 Miami $342,000 Miami Beach $225,000 TOTAL: $1,067,000 IT ALREADY WORKS IN JUVENILE COURT Metro police already use a standby system in Juvenile Court. It's expected to save the department $445,000 in its first full year.

SOURCES:Police department

WHERE THEY DO IT DIFFERENTLY . . . AND WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT DADE A HERALD SURVEY OF COURTS IN MANHATTAN, LOS ANGELES, CHICAGO, BOSTON, DALLAS, ST. LOUIS, PHOENIX, PORTLAND, ORE., JACKSONVILLE, ORLANDO, ST. PETERSBURG AND BROWARD FOUND NO OTHER SYSTEM THAT OPERATES LIKE DADE'S. DADE IS THE ONLY COUNTY THAT REPEATEDLY SUMMONS OFFICERS TO COURT FOR DUI AND OTHER MISDEMEANOR HEARINGS, EVEN THOUGH THEIR TESTIMONY IS RARELY NEEDED. ST. LOUIS"WOW! THAT MUST BE EXPENSIVE."-- BOB CRADDICK, MISDEMEANOR CHIEF, CIRCUIT ATTORNEY'S OFFICE

PHOENIX "Fiscally, clearly [stand-by] is a much better system, no doubt about it. . . . It's my understanding it saved the police department a million or million-two a year, according to the last study that was done." -- Kerry Wangberg, city prosecutor

PORTLAND "An officer is expected to check daily their listing of court appearances, so they know whether a case is actually going or not." -- Officer John Wrigley, Portland Police Department JACKSONVILLE "That would obviously be a lot more paper, a lot more phone calls, a lot more time involved in the case -- and could cause greater chaos. Your officers are sitting around wasting time." -- Tatiana Radi Salvador, misdemeanor chief, state attorney's office

ORLANDO"Subpoenas are issued for every [court] date? They don't have an on-call system? I bet that costs money!" -- Bill Vose, chief assistant state attorney ST. PETERSBURG"Maybe because of our system, we don't have a lot of that [piggy-backing]. In Pinellas County, I can't recall ever seeing a case where I said, 'This is a real inordinate number of people.' "

-- Shawn Crane, misdemeanor chief, state attorney's office BROWARD "Rather than have everybody come in, somebody with a lot of brains years ago decided to go to a standby system. It allows my coordinators to call off all those police officers who were subpoenaed on cases which were continued, and to alert those officers who are on cases that are ready for trial." -- Joel Shulman, witness-liaison director, state attorney's office

CHICAGO "We don't do that. It should be much more expensive doing it that way." -- Peter Troy, traffic division chief, state attorney's office

DALLAS "That could get to be a $100,000-a-year job pretty fast! Goodness, that's sweet. That's an extreme abuse, it really is." -- Rick Jordan, misdemeanor division chief, district attorney's office.

BOSTON "You must wind up paying a ton. Wow. I'm just curious as to how all those officers on a standard [DUI] are going to offer different testimony?" -- Leora Joseph, Boston Municipal Court chief, district attorney's office.

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