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  1. Opinion

Why didn’t St. Pete police chief investigate if officers claim overtime while not working? | Editorial

When two police officers were demoted in 2018 for falsifying hours, they accused their colleagues of doing the same. That shouldn’t have been the end of it.

At a time when more than 1 million Floridians have sought unemployment benefits, even the suggestion that St. Petersburg police supervisors have been paid overtime while sitting at home is particularly galling. Even more frustrating is that police Chief Anthony Holloway was told this was common practice but failed to investigate while disciplining two lieutenants for doing just that. The controversy underscores the value of public records and the need for a wider investigation.

As the Tampa Bay Times’ Mark Puente reported, two St. Petersburg police lieutenants were demoted in 2018 after an internal investigation found their cars were still at home or they were sometimes commuting to their jobs from Tarpon Springs and Lithia while reporting themselves as being on duty . A third accused officer retired before the investigation was complete. At the time, both demoted lieutenants told investigators they were working from home and that this was common practice. “I can tell you it’s more than just the three of us,” said former police lieutenant Cynthia Davis to an investigator. Yet the police department did little to follow up on these claims.

What makes this even more concerning is the city’s cone of silence and its refusal to hand over records. The city refused a request by the lieutenants for time-keeping records and location-tracking data on 49 lieutenants and sergeants from August 2017 to January 2018 for their arbitration case, the same records used to demote them. The city called it a “fishing expedition” and asked the judge to reject the request. But in March, a circuit judge required the city to produce the records. The department is pulling together the records, but it never should have stonewalled. Now city officials have even instructed City Council members not to comment on the situation.

Why didn’t Holloway investigate the claims made by the two lieutenants that this overtime padding was common practice? In June 2018, Holloway said in an interview that he had created a policy to prevent any issues with time-keeping within the department. But when the Times asked for a copy, Holloway indicated that it was a “verbal directive” and not “a written policy.” If two of his lieutenants were demoted for doing the same thing they accused dozens of supervisors of doing, wouldn’t that warrant a full investigation?

Taxpayer dollars are especially precious at a time when the city needs every nickel to help residents survive the economic damage from the pandemic and to prepare for declines in some tax revenues. Like everyone else, police officers should not be paid overtime when they are not on the job. And the police chief should have investigated when he was told that is common practice instead of resisting requests for records and looking the other way.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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