Overtime pay went un-arrested in SPD unit

A police watchdog finds $1 million in excessive spending, but no evidence of officer misconduct.
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Seattle Police vehicles (in Belltown, 2008).

A police watchdog finds $1 million in excessive spending, but no evidence of officer misconduct.

Hampered by poor management and inaccurate records, a Seattle Police Department training unit blew its overtime budget by more than $1 million last year, according to a new report from the department's Office of Professional Accountability.

OPA found that no supervisors or officers in the Education and Training Section had engaged in misconduct. But there were some questionable payroll practices. For instance, instructors had schedules that regularly guaranteed them overtime pay, and one employee was paid for 31.5 overtime hours in a single day. Some of those hours were likely due to an account coding error, but incomplete records made this impossible to verify.

Pierce Murphy, OPA's civilian director, said in a phone interview on Tuesday that the training unit's excessive overtime payments pointed more to an organizational problem than the actions of a few rogue cops.

"It appeared to be more than just confined to one year or one place, this was not a person going in to steal or misuse public funds, but a practice that had developed over time and was longstanding," he said. "Really the root of the problem is much broader."

Mayor Ed Murray, who is traveling in Ireland, called on Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole to have the department take a closer look at the training section. "In light of this report, I have directed the chief to again review ETS management structure, fiscal accountability measures and program outcomes," the mayor said in a statement.

"Serious systemic problems were highlighted," O'Toole said in a statement of her own. In line with a recommendation from OPA, the chief requested that the Office of the City Auditor conduct an audit of the training section and recommend improvements. She also said that commanders would get financial training to improve their budgeting skills.

An anonymous internal complaint triggered the investigation. OPA investigates both internal and civilian misconduct complaints filed against Seattle police officers. The office worked with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission and the Office of the City Auditor to scrutinize the training section's overtime practices. 

"Clearly ETS supervisors failed to keep overtime spending within budget, did not have tight supervisory controls and did not keep accurate records," Murphy, the OPA director, wrote in the report. He recommended that "SPD as an organization be held accountable for this failure to control overtime spending." Murphy also noted that the unit was under pressure to produce a high volume of curriculum materials and deliver four days of training to over 1,200 officers "without adequate staffing or budget."

The Training and Education Section has played a central role in the effort to get officers up to speed on new policies enacted as part of the city's ongoing police reform process. The reforms are part of a settlement agreement the city reached with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2012.

Although a significant amount of the unit's 2013 overtime was charged to an account designed to cover reform costs, the OPA report points out that no training had been submitted for approval to Merrick Bobb, the federally appointed monitor overseeing the process. The bulk of the unit's overtime last year actually involved curriculum development for the so-called "20/20" reform plan, which former Mayor Mike McGinn and former Police Chief John Diaz pushed in the months before the city entered into the settlement agreement.

In his report Murphy raised questions about what the investment in the 20/20 training actually yielded. "Much of the 'world-class' training curriculum researched and developed for the 20/20 project was never delivered and did not add to the effectiveness of SPD or move the organization closer to compliance with the Settlement Agreement," he wrote. 

During a phone interview he elaborated. "I suspect that they got good training," Murphy said. But he added: "It wasn't linked to the settlement agreement and a lot of the curriculum that were being worked on never really materialized into courses."

Ron Smith, president of the Seattle Police Officer's Guild, voiced similar thoughts.

"They kept pushing the 20/20 training instead of hitting the stop button and seeing what was going to be mandated by the monitor," he said, referring to the leadership of McGinn and Diaz. "To me, that's what the problem was."

Smith also said that officers working at the training unit were simply doing what they were told. "It's reflective of a poorly managed department," he said, referring to the findings in the OPA report.

The training unit had as many as 38 employees of various ranks assigned to it in 2013, according to the report. A captain, a lieutenant and four sergeants were responsible for supervision and management.

The Seattle Police Manager's Association represents the department's captains and lieutenants. Capt. Eric Sano, who is president of the association, said he did not know much about the OPA investigation. "They were questioned and they were investigated," he said of the involved SPMA members. "But it came back unsustained."

Mayor Murray has said he wants to add 100 new police officers by the end of his term. But after the mayor released his budget proposal earlier this month, City Council President Tim Burgess said that he wants to know more about what the police department's current staff are up to before expanding the number of officers on the force. Burgess used the OPA report as an opportunity to reiterate that point.

"It was clear to the Council last year that there was little internal management of the Police Department designed to increase policing effectiveness or to use resources in the most efficient way possible," he said in an emailed statement. "That’s why we set aside $500,000 for the new Chief of Police to conduct an independent management review and resource deployment assessment of the entire Department."

Burgess added, "We eagerly await her findings."

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