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Wednesday, September 16, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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A Seattle police officer’s extraordinary pay raises questions SPD can’t answer

UPDATED: Tue., Sept. 1, 2020

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan speaks on July 13 during a news conference at City Hall in Seattle.  (Ted S. Warren)
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan speaks on July 13 during a news conference at City Hall in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren)
By Daniel Gilbert, Daniel Beekman and Manuel Villa Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Seattle Police Officer Ron Willis was exceptionally busy in 2019 – so much so that he crammed the work of two years into just one.

Willis, a 58-year-old patrol officer, made $414,543.06 last year – more than the mayor, the police chief or any other city employee. How? He was paid for 4,149 hours of work, not including vacation or sick leave.

That total means he was paid for working an average of 80 hours a week, about twice as many hours as a typical full-time employee. Willis was paid for working between 90 and 123 hours a week for seven weeks straight last summer, according to a Seattle Times analysis of SPD data.

On six occasions, Willis was compensated for more than 24 hours in a single day, according to the data.

Under their contract, Seattle officers can be paid for more hours than they physically work. SPD, however, couldn’t say whether Willis physically worked all of these hours because it can’t effectively track overtime that is still filed on paper forms.

This inability to monitor the workload of its employees illustrates a lingering weakness, four years after an audit found widespread potential for inappropriate overtime pay and as SPD’s internal affairs division continues to fault the department for lax oversight. SPD’s budget is now the subject of intense scrutiny as officers contend with historic levels of unrest and as activists call for cuts to police funding.

SPD declined to answer questions about Willis’ pay. Instead, the department forwarded the questions submitted by The Times to the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) to investigate “any policy violations,” and said it couldn’t comment on a pending investigation.

Willis, who joined the department in 1995 and also works as an adjunct trainer, didn’t return a call seeking comment.

“It would not be appropriate for Officer Willis to make public comment” while the matter is under investigation, said Sgt. Lauren Truscott, a department spokesperson.

SPD has struggled for years to monitor its overtime costs, which initially were budgeted at about $30 million this year. The city auditor’s office in 2016 cited numerous lapses in SPD’s policies and procedures governing extra pay, including identifying 400 potential duplicate overtime payments totaling more than $160,000 in 2014. The auditor suggested, and SPD endorsed, an automated system that would flag errors or inappropriate use of overtime.

Four years later, that system is still not in place. SPD says it is expected to go live “within the next year.”

“Pervasive” problems

It is all but certain that Willis and many other officers are paid for more hours than they physically work, due to provisions of their contract that guarantee minimum amounts of overtime.

For instance, if officers work overtime after they finish their shifts, they are paid for a minimum of three hours at the rate of time-and-a-half, according to the city’s contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild. A Guild official, asked for comment about Willis’ hours and SPD’s oversight of overtime, hadn’t provided a response as of Monday night.

It’s possible for employees to be paid for more than 24 hours in a single day for a legitimate reason. In the past, SPD has said it can only apply back pay to a single date, said Robin Howe, the assistant city auditor who led the 2016 report. There can be a significant lag between when an officer worked and when the overtime is entered, according to the report.

The only way to verify how many hours an officer physically works is to review a paper form on file with the officer’s unit, according to SPD officials. The department doesn’t have a way of ensuring compliance with its maximum-hours policy, which prohibits officers from working more than 90 hours a week unless granted an exception.

“SPD does not have capacity to manually audit the total weekly hours worked by each of its 2,000 employees,” Truscott said. “There is an ongoing project to implement a technology solution to address this issue.”

There are other gaps that have stymied investigators trying to determine whether SPD employees are accurately reporting their working hours, according to a Times review of OPA cases.

Supervisors “did not have tight supervisory controls and did not keep accurate records,” OPA wrote in a 2015 memo after investigating whether employees in the Education and Training section claimed hours they didn’t work. The office didn’t sanction any individuals.

“Because these issues appear to have been pervasive,” the report states, “it is recommended that SPD as an organization be held accountable for this failure to control overtime spending.”

The 2016 audit of SPD’s overtime controls documented confusion and inconsistencies around how overtime pay is logged, with little independent monitoring. Hours could be entered into an electronic time sheet or on paper, creating the potential for duplicate payments, the auditor found.

Officers in many cases were paid for more than 24 hours in a day, often because they received “standby” pay – for being available in case they were needed – even though they were already working. The department had no way of enforcing its maximum-hours policy, the auditor wrote, because it didn’t monitor officers’ on-duty or off-duty work.

“There is very little work done within SPD to look for unnecessary or abusive overtime,” the report states.

In response, SPD developed an overtime policy and pledged to perform manual audits until it could purchase and implement an automated timekeeping system. In an April update, the auditor’s office reported that SPD’s target date for the new system “has slipped due to complications within the project.”

In January 2019, SPD began investigating a complaint that officers in the training unit were manipulating the system to get paid for hours they didn’t work. OPA’s investigation “did not yield clear evidence of time theft,” and a criminal investigator didn’t find evidence that justified filing charges, according to a case summary issued in March.

Both OPA and SPD’s Investigation Bureau, however, faulted the oversight measures in place. OPA compared the time sheets of SPD employees with a log showing when they used electronic key cards to enter buildings. Some buildings, however, lack a card reader and don’t record any data. The key-card log also doesn’t show when employees leave a building.

“SPD should put in place additional measures to ensure that employees in the Training Unit and, for that matter, other specialty units, are working the hours they are being compensated for,” OPA wrote in a memo.

“A blank check”

SPD’s payroll has been a central focus of the City Council’s efforts to cut the department’s budget amid the economic fallout from the pandemic and activist calls to shift funding to other social services.

Annual overtime expenses have roughly tripled since 2006, according to the department; some costs are reimbursed by sponsors of special events.

Mayor Jenny Durkan has ordered SPD to cut back on overtime since the COVID-19 pandemic struck. But other attempts to cut the SPD payroll have encountered fierce resistance. Durkan last week vetoed council bills meant to reduce the police force by up to 100 officers and to trim the wages of command staff. Chief Carmen Best resigned in protest of the council’s cuts.

Council President M. Lorena González, who oversaw police matters when the 2016 audit was conducted, said she was “frustrated and disappointed” that key recommendations have not been implemented.

“I have been raising concerns about that since I was elected and the reality is that the Police Department effectively has a blank check as it relates to overtime,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “We do set a budget every year, but every year it’s known that they are going to blow right through that budget.“

Some 374 SPD employees grossed at least $200,000 last year, boosted by retroactive raises stemming from a new contract signed in late 2018. More than 160 SPD employees made at least $50,000 in overtime last year – excluding the retroactive payments. Even in this company, one patrol officer stands out.

That officer, Willis, made $214,544 in overtime and $128,716 in regular pay last year, enough to make him the most highly paid employee even without counting the more than $70,000 he received in back pay.

The police officer with the second-highest working time was paid for 3,429 hours compared with Willis’ 4,149 – roughly four months less on a full-time basis. No other city worker was paid for working more than 3,520 hours, according to data from the city’s human resources department.

Officers can accrue overtime for various purposes, including handling security and traffic at sports events and protests, leading training sessions and making court appearances.

Adding to the confusing picture of Willis’ compensation, there are some interdepartmental discrepancies in how many hours Willis was paid for. While payroll data from human resources shows he was paid for 4,149 hours in one year, records provided by SPD total just 3,874.5 hours. The records also show he was paid more than $60,000 at a time when zero hours were worked.

A citizen who joined Willis for a ride-along last year was impressed with his patience.

“He explained so many things patiently and in depth, taking the time to help me develop a better understanding of the work police officers do,” according to a summary of the “Thank an Employee” submissions SPD produced in September.

“His empathy for the troubled man we encountered was obvious as he treated the man with patience and compassion.”

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