2 probes into Seattle police OT spending

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by LINDA BYRON / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @LByronK5

KING5.com

Posted on May 7, 2014 at 10:17 PM

Two investigations are underway into potential abuse of overtime policies at the Seattle Police Department, the KING 5 Investigators have confirmed.

Both the Seattle City Auditor and the SPD's Office of Professional Accountability have opened investigations into the matter, which involves as much as $2.8 million in overtime spending.

The overtime costs were charged to the SPD training unit, which was under pressure to provide increased training as part of the department's legal settlement with the federal government over excessive use of force and biased policing. But it’s unclear where all of the money went.  Hundreds of officers did not receive even the minimum 32 hours of “Street Skills” training that’s part of their guild contract.

Then-acting police chief Jim Pugel suspended the training last October when he became aware the unit was racking up overtime far beyond what was budgeted, according to Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, who works in the department's Public Affairs Office. KING 5 was unable to reach Pugel for comment. 

Two months after the training was suspended, Merrick Bobb, the federal monitor overseeing changes at SPD, sounded the alarm, saying the lack of training was stalling the overall reform effort.

But the overtime and training problem didn't become known to top city officials until January, when an anonymous complaint was made to the Office of Professional Accountability.

"We're looking at the allegation that one or more people used their authority to direct overtime spending to themselves or others," said Pierce Murphy, the OPA director. 

He said the SPD officers under investigation may have acted "for their [own] benefit or the benefit of others that were friends or somehow known to them."

Murphy receives and investigates complaints about misconduct in the Seattle Police Department.  He said this case is unusual because it has to do with internal processes and the use of authority internally. Most complaints have to do with use of force or day to day interactions between citizens and police.

Sources told KING 5 that the allegations now under investigation paint the picture of a unit with such lax oversight that it became the center of an overtime free for all -- with members scheduling themselves for overtime without a supervisor's approval and at times when there were too few students to justify extra instructors.

"I'm incredibly disturbed," said Mayor Ed Murray. "I'm disturbed by what happened last year and I'm disturbed that this information didn't come out last year."

Murray said Interim Police Chief Harry Bailey -- the man he appointed in January after removing Pugel from the post -- made investigating the overtime spending a top priority shortly after he took over.

Seattle City Auditor David Jones also confirms his office is investigating what precipitated the spending spree, why the training unit overspent its budget and why it wasn’t noticed sooner.

While most of the people who led the unit last year have been moved to new assignments, Murray said he wants to hold accountable anyone who knowingly violated SPD policies.

"The question we need to ask is, ‘Who are the individuals who may have abused the system?'" Murray said. "The more important question is why did the leadership of the police department last year allow this to happen?"

SPD would not provide information about how much overtime was budgeted for training in 2013, so it’s impossible to know exactly how far spending exceeded the budget. SPD's Whitcomb said the overage was “substantial,” but more detailed information would not be made available until the OPA investigation is completed. 

Meantime, the SPD training unit is ramping up again as departmental reforms continue. More overtime is unavoidable unless the city wants to reduce the number of officers on patrol at any given time. But Murray said he will make it clear to the next police chief that overtime needs to be and closely tracked and controlled and its use justified.

Murray is expected to announce his pick for SPD chief in roughly two weeks. He is currently in the process of interviewing the three finalists -- Elk Grove (Calif.) Police Chief Robert Lehner, Mesa (Ariz.) Police Chief Frank Milstead, and former Boston Police Commissioner Kathleen O'Toole.

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