ST. PETERSBURG — The Police Department has overhauled the way it doles out off-duty assignments a year after the Tampa Bay Times highlighted a system that allowed a few officers to make a disproportionate share of the cash.
This summer, officials debuted a new, all-digital computer system that requires officers to "bid" on jobs. Their bosses, meanwhile, can manage the system with less staffing and more control.
"It's a lot better than it was before," said Sgt. Joe Pratt, who is in charge of the department that manages off-duty assignments. "The idea is to be fair and equitable. Everybody is working roughly the same amount of jobs — if they want to."
Every year, private businesses and nonprofits pay the department upward of $1 million to have officers at their events or patrolling their establishments. It has become a reliable way for officers to make extra money.
In June 2012, the Tampa Bay Times found that half of the department's officers were able to increase their pay by more than 20 percent with off-duty work in 2011. But a few officers nearly doubled their salaries with side jobs that required them to work more than 60 hours a week, raising concerns about on-the-job fatigue.
The report shocked some city leaders, who wondered if extra jobs interfered with regular work. Police officials insisted that was not the case.
In late May, the agency debuted its new Special Events Management System, which cost just under $10,000. Officers now have three days to bid on jobs that Pratt's office loads into a computer system.
The computer automatically awards the job to the person with the least amount of off-duty hours in the past 30 days.
Before, Pratt's team spent several hours a week sifting through paper forms, trying to figure out who could work what, taking into account work schedules and availability. They used a simple rotation method to award the job, regardless of how many hours that officer already worked.
"It was a very manual, tedious process," Pratt said. "And because it was manual, occasionally we'd have a scheduling error. … The new system kind of took the whole human element out of it."
Not everyone is happy.
"Certain officers like it, certain officers don't," said Detective Mark Marland, head of the police union. "It's convenient. But more people are bidding for less jobs. Some don't like the competition."
One of the major changes with the new system is that swapping — when an officer trades an off-duty job with someone else — now affects a person's chances of getting another job. Before, a person kept their spot in line even if they worked jobs for others.
Now every job an officer takes is figured into his or her 30-day total.
It's also tougher to hoard jobs because more officers are signing up for off-duty work. Pratt thinks that's because people get to pick the jobs they bid for, decreasing the likelihood they will try to trade it away or not want to go for it in the first place.
"Those that used to work a lot of jobs obviously aren't getting as many jobs," Pratt said. "Back in March, there were 120 officers in rotation. When I just did a check over the previous 30 days, there were 240 officers."
Pratt said the department started talking about getting the computer system, which is also used at the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, in early 2012. But the project stalled during the planning of the Republican National Convention and a busy fall schedule of special events.
Some practices have stayed the same. Officers can be kicked off the eligibility list for 60 days if they fail to show for an off-duty job. Also, the agency still does not have a written policy limiting the number of hours an officer can work in a day. However, officers are prohibited from taking a job they have no intention of working or bidding on a job with the intention of trading.
Officers caught doing that can get kicked off the list for months.
Marland said he didn't have a problem with the old system, but he likes the new one.
"Overall my own personal view is it's okay," he said. "The rank and file? It's about 50-50."
Pratt said things seem to be working well.
"Whenever there's change to a system, there will be complaints," Pratt said. "I've had people come into my office and say, 'I don't like the system, but I can't say it's not fair.' "
Kameel Stanley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8643.