In St. Petersburg, a police officer looking to hold down a second job has to get approval from a supervisor that the work won't conflict with the demands of policing. But if that same officer wants to work extraordinary overtime or volunteer for extra pay assignments, the same rules apparently don't apply. That makes no sense in an occupation where mental and physical acuity can mean the difference between life and death for both the officer and the public. To ensure public safety, the St. Petersburg Police Department should set some reasonable limits on the number of hours individual officers are allowed to work.
An analysis by the Tampa Bay Times found that half of the city's officers increased their regular pay last year by more than 20 percent — a boost of more than $12,000 annually — with overtime or extra pay. But it also uncovered a small cadre of officers who had apparently mastered the system to increase their take-home pay by more than 50 percent. That meant they volunteered not only for so-called extra pay assignments, such as being on call, but also frequently picked up overtime assignments that fellow officers couldn't work.
One veteran officer, John Douglas Jr., even managed to double his pay last year by working an average of 24 hours of overtime weekly — the equivalent of three additional eight-hour shifts each week. Eight other officers averaged 14 hours or more extra per week.
In general, city officials defend the extensive use of overtime, saying it is more cost-effective than hiring and outfitting additional police officers. And Chief Chuck Harmon said there is no evidence that such work has impeded officers' performance during their regular shifts. He argues that much overtime work — such as handling traffic for Tampa Bay Rays games — can be much less taxing than a normal shift. And it's worth noting that only the first 100 hours of a police officer's annual overtime can apply toward pension benefits.
But the very fact that some officers are accruing extraordinary amounts of overtime came as a shock to several City Council members, who shared concerns about fatigue on the job and officers' raised salary expectations. At the very least, the city should implement a policy similar to Tampa's, which prohibits officers from working more than 16 hours in a 24-hour period.
The scrutiny, however, shouldn't stop there. Harmon's team should be tracking who is working what hours and reconsider whether to allocate resources differently if more than half of the force is earning 20 percent additional income in extra pay or overtime.
Apparently, none of these officers broke any rules in accruing this extraordinary income last year. The issue is that there are no rules that set reasonable limits on overtime. Taxpayers make continual investments to ensure police officers have the tools and training at their disposal to safely resolve situations for themselves and the public. Part of that investment comes with the assumption that their investment is being spent on officers who are alert, well-rested and ready for their regular job.