THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Police overtime is under scrutiny

Court appearance pay is targeted

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By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / February 19, 2011

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Boston police said they plan an audit that could extend to every unit and district in the department to determine whether rampant abuse of court overtime pay has been occurring, after four officers appeared at a city courthouse though they had not been ordered to be there.

“Depending on what we find, [Commissioner Edward F. Davis] will make a determination on what the next step is,’’ said police spokeswoman Elaine Driscoll. “It’s a priority to him.’’

A high-ranking law enforcement official with direct knowledge of the investigation said that police and prosecutors in Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley’s office are investigating whether the four officers doctored a notice issued by Conley’s office to appear in court so that their names would be on it and they could collect overtime pay.

Only one officer was sent a notice to go to court for the case, a probable cause hearing for a drug-related charge, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official is not authorized to discuss the case publicly.

But police said that four other officers, including a sergeant detective with 32 years on the force, also showed up. To be compensated for court appearances, an officer must fill out an overtime slip and show the notice to a police supervisor at the court. The notice, which is typically e-mailed, is a generic-looking form that can be altered or copied easily, said another law enforcement official with knowledge of the case.

Driscoll declined to comment on the law enforcement official’s description of the investigation; nor would she describe the nature of the court case.

“I’m not going to get into what we’re looking at or not looking at this point,’’ she said.

A spokeswoman for Conley’s office also declined to comment on the investigation.

The names of the officers have not been released, but Driscoll said that before this investigation none of them had had any complaints lodged against them or been disciplined. The sergeant detective has been placed on paid administrative leave; the three patrol officers are on desk duty. The officer who was called to court was transferred to another district.

Thomas Drechsler, a Boston lawyer who is representing all the patrol officers, said he has not received any documents from police detailing allegations against the officers.

“I’m very confident that there will be absolutely no evidence that anyone sought or received any compensation to which they were not entitled,’’ he said. “I want to emphasize that the department has characterized this correctly as an investigation. No one has been charged with anything or accused of anything, either administratively or otherwise.’’

Gerry Sanfilippo — president of the Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society, the union representing the sergeant detective — said he could not comment on the case because he did not know enough about the allegations. But he said that the supervisor under investigation is well regarded.

“Very hard-working, very conscientious, very, very knowledgeable guy,’’ Sanfilippo said. “His reputation has always been above reproach in the 25 years that I’ve known him.’’

The officers are all members of the drug unit working out of the E-5 District, which covers West Roxbury and Roslindale, two of the quieter areas of the city. The high-ranking official and a second law enforcement official with knowledge of the investigation said that a court official noticed the presence of the additional officers in the courthouse and questioned why they were there. The sergeant assigned to supervise the court alerted police officials.

A third official said that when the officers were later asked why they were there, they responded that the case was very important and that they wanted to make a strong show of force to ensure that it was taken seriously.

Driscoll said the audit will entail taking a small sampling of overtime slips from various elements of the department and could include every unit and all 11 districts.

The department’s audit and review unit will analyze the slips officers have filled out to be compensated for court appearances and look at whether those slips are backed by official notices to appear in court, she said.

Budget watchdog groups say that the poor economy has forced municipalities to look more closely at practices that can be abused.

“I think the economy is doing the taxpayers a lot of good, because it’s forcing the city to look at issues that have gone unseen for a long time,’’ said Matthew Cahill, executive director of the Boston Finance Commission. “When these things come up, they definitely point to a problem in the system that needs to be corrected right away.’’

The probe is being launched as Boston police officials are struggling to bring down overtime costs. In the past two years, district supervisors have been told to curb opportunities for overtime pay for officers, a change that has rankled union leaders and the rank and file, who say that the austerity measures have the potential to hurt investigations.

Davis has said he is trying to rein in the use of court overtime, a benefit that allows an officer to collect at least four hours of overtime when he or she is called to testify in court. Officers must be paid a minimum of four hours of overtime even if a prosecutor does not need them to take the stand that day.

Sanfilippo said that police officials have asked prosecutors to call fewer officers to testify in court.

“Years ago, when money was not an issue, obviously the DAs brought in as many detectives and officers that they thought were necessary to make their case,’’ he said. “In recent years, there has been a trend to minimize the number of officers to save money. . . . I understand that need, but I certainly wouldn’t want someone’s investigation jeopardized because you didn’t have everyone there that you needed.’’

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.