Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Soaring overtime costs more than money

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Running a police department is expensive. Investigating crime is pricey. And the brass of the Winnipeg Police Service may soon have to look for a new way to solve murders.

The police budget surpasses all other civic departments and overtime is (always has been) a contentious issue. It'spretty straightforward. Officers get paid extra when they work beyond their scheduled shift. Or if they're called out. Or if they appear in court on a day off.

The overtime is certified and authorized by immediate bosses and it's up to divisional inspectors to manage and oversee his or her division's use of it.

But as last year was winding down the overtime that had been paid out to homicide detectives flashed brightly on the radar way up on the top floor of the Public Safety Building. Overtime is normally a divisional concern but the executive branch is now taking a closer look.

Deputy Chief Shelley Hart confirms that in 2009 at least one officer had doubled his base salary with overtime and finished the year closing in on the $200,000 mark.

In 2008 overtime played a significant role in the bottom line, too, with investigators receiving compensation well into six figures.

Not surprisingly, investigators made more, with overtime, than their immediate bosses, but eyebrows were raised when relatively low-ranking investigators made more in a year than bosses who are several rungs up the ladder.

Rightly or wrongly, the success of a police service is gauged by how well it solves the most serious crimes, including murder.

In the early 1990s, Sgt. Ron Ryland and Staff Sgt. Bill Vandergraaf, members of the former robbery-homicide squad, worked with two-dozen other detectives who were spread over three shifts, covering each day of the week from early morning into the late night.

It was an imperfect system. Communication suffered as officers freshly back from days off tried to maintain murder-case-momentum while the officers initially assigned went off duty. In those days a homicide investigation could lose prominence when other major crimes from the squad's extensive mandate appeared without warning. Court overtime was a huge expenditure, with officers often spending their time off testifying in cases that could go on for weeks.

Ryland and Vandergraaf saw a better way of doing business. They proposed a much smaller group -- six investigators and two co-ordinators -- scheduled to work together, exclusively on homicide matters.

They properly saw a tight, concerted effort and strong communication as the most efficient way to put cases down.

Their proposal of a Monday-to-Friday schedule meant overtime for some when a murder was reported in the middle of the night. And more if leads were chased into the weekend.

The executive bought into the plan and it worked well for years. They were able to keep the overtime in check while eliminating extra pay for appearing in court. Even prominent criminal defence lawyers, like Richard Wolson, praised the system. Much later the unit expanded to eight investigators.

Whatever the reason, overtime costs have exploded recently.

Put simply, the upper echelon of the police service cannot sit idly by and let murder be investigated at any cost. Fiscal resources are finite. Maintaining a budget path and steering future pension pay where overtime is factored are two immediate issues.

In short, there is a public expectation and a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that effectiveness in solving cases is complemented by a visible degree of cost-efficiency.

Those expectations and responsibilities are priorities, says Hart, adding that officer well-being is, too.

As their study continues, what, if any, changes the police executive can or will make is unknown. The bigger question is: What options are available in lieu of large dollops of overtime?

The late Dennis Toyne, once a detective manager who remains a crime-investigating icon, favoured the new homicide unit when it was born, but would have deep and blunt concerns today.

A toll is taken on those who work the long and odd hours that garner such pay. The now-retired Bill Vandergraaf had a number of observations earlier this week. Among them he feared that officer burnout could ultimately affect the cases being investigated.

It's a tall order to reshape what was right for so long, but maybe the time has come. Nothing lasts forever. It's too bad because it worked so well.

Robert Marshall is a security consultant and former Winnipeg police detective.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 23, 2010 H11

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