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Getting a handle on overtime for cops is overdue

The first step in selling a tax hike is to reassure taxpayers that the money they’re already forking over is being well spent, not wasted. That’s a hard case to make when Chicago police overtime is surging.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Police Supt. Eddie Johnson at a recent news conference.
Fran Spielman/Chicago Sun-Times

City Hall doesn’t need another audit. The cops just have to stop blowing through absurd amounts of money in overtime pay.

Until that happens, we don’t see how Mayor Lori Lightfoot can ask Chicagoans to pay higher taxes for anything.

OK, that’s not entirely fair.

Chicago faces enormous financial problems that can be blamed only marginally on excessive police overtime — the real problem is pension obligations — and the mayor almost certainly will have to raise property taxes. It may be her only responsible choice.

But the first step in selling a tax hike is to reassure taxpayers that the money they’re already forking over is being well spent, not wasted. And that’s a hard case to make when police OT is surging.

$70 million in six months

As Fran Spielman of the Sun-Times reported Friday, the Chicago Police Department has spent almost $70 million in overtime pay through the first half of this year despite a big beefing up in staffing and a heavy investment in technology intended to reduce OT, such as an electronic time-keeping system.

City Hall Inspector General Joe Ferguson is conducting an audit to determine if earlier promises made by Police Supt. Eddie Johnson to rein in overtime have been kept. But Spielman’s reporting, based on an analysis of records released in response to a Freedom of Information request, would seem to offer an answer to that: No.

Johnson doesn’t need another audit, though we look forward to seeing what the inspector general learns. He needs to do the job he vowed to do two years ago and eliminate the bad management and fraud that are driving up overtime.

Suspicious and concerned

Chicago’s problem with excessive police overtime dates back decades, but we can mark a specific turn for the worse in 2011 when Mayor Rahm Emanuel eliminated 1,400 police vacancies and relied on overtime to pick up the slack. CPD spent $46 million in overtime for the entirety of 2011. Now, the department appears to be on pace to triple that this year.

When CPD spends excessively on overtime, we get suspicious and concerned.

We get suspicious that it’s all a big scam, with cops gaming the system. In an October 2017 report on the police overtime, Ferguson cited the example of a single police officer who pulled in $336,000 in overtime in just 2 12 years. What could that cop have been doing? Did he ever sleep?

Ferguson found evidence of “paper jumping,” in which officers unnecessarily added their names to a police report so that they could get overtime going to court. And he called out as absurd a provision in the police contract that gives officers a minimum of three hours of OT for “as little as 15 minutes of work.”

We get concerned because a tired police force is a less effective police force. An officer who constantly works overtime cannot be rested and fresh.

A bad part of the culture

The excessive use of overtime pay is not exclusive to the police department or to Chicago. It is a part of the culture in many public bodies, where accountability can be lax compared to the private sector. Significant overtime pay is counted on, just like vacation pay and pensions.

We are reminded of how Christmas once came early to the city clerk’s office every June as the staff worked long overtime hours to mail out tens of thousands of vehicle stickers before a July 1 deadline. Employees counted on that OT, informally building it into their annual pay, and nobody worked too hard or fast.

Then in 2013, the clerk at that time, Susana Mendoza, began selling the stickers earlier and pushed more online sales. She eventually began selling the stickers on a staggered basis year-round. By doing so, she cut overtime in the clerk’s office by half.

When Ferguson released his report on police overtime abuses in 2017, the top brass at CPD vowed to get on top of the problem. They have not.

Even as the mayor winds up to pitch higher taxes.

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