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A short court visit can net cops an overtime windfall

Cops insist on hand-delivering electronic evidence

Catherine McGloin
A short court visit can net cops an overtime windfall
Roxbury District Court in Nubian Square. BANNER PHOTO

The 150 yards between the District B-2 police station on Washington Street and Roxbury Municipal Court can be a lucrative walk for off-duty Boston Police officers looking to make a little overtime.

“The judges know, the prosecutors know, everyone in the courthouse knows that once [officers] are summonsed they can come in, they can check in to court and they can bill for going to court – for dropping off a piece of paper,” said Zachary Lown, a defense attorney in Boston.

The Area B2 substation, as seen from the Roxbury District Court. BANNER PHOTO

Police union contracts ensure that the minimum amount of overtime BPD officers can bill for this five-minute walk is four hours.

Amid renewed scrutiny of the BPD’s $60 million overtime budget, some criminal defense attorneys are speaking out about court overtime abuses they have witnessed, including the delivery of documents and evidence that could have been safely emailed, saving time and thousands of taxpayer dollars.

“To require a summons to bring over something that could be emailed, [or] which the prosecutor could walk across the street and get, is really just sort of openly gaming the system,” said Lown. “In that way it can impede the court proceeding because it can hold up the amount of time it takes to get evidence. It’s also just a totally wrong incentive.”

According to the city’s records, BPD spent almost $70 million on overtime requests last year. More than 500 officers earned in excess of $200,000 in 2019, taking home more money than Mayor Martin Walsh. 

Before the courts closed due to COVID-19 at the end of April, Lown recalled a hearing at the municipal court in Roxbury. The judge, irate with a prosecutor who had failed to receive papers from police officers, asked in disbelief, “Do you mean to tell me that the Boston Police won’t email it to you? You can’t walk over to the police station and get it?”

Despite the station being within eyesight of the court, Lown said, the prosecutor could not go to the station and collect it, and instead had to summon officers to court to hand over the papers, thus earning the messenger a sizable chunk of overtime change.

Another defense attorney, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said police officers routinely bring discovery to courthouses, including paper copies of computer-aided dispatch (CAD) transcripts of 911 calls and compact discs with images, audio recordings or video, which could easily be shared electronically.

“Instead of telling an officer to send it in a Dropbox file, somehow they’re still finding it necessary to send an officer over with a CD and a CAD sheet,” the defense attorney said. “If body-worn camera footage can be provided via a link, I don’t see why everything else can’t.”

Sergeant Detective John Boyle, spokesperson for the BPD, said that “each case is different and unique” and can depend on which district attorney is handling the case or requesting the evidence.

Without mentioning specific cases, Boyle said, it’s difficult to know if evidence hand-delivered could have been sent electronically. As a homicide detective, Boyle said, his cases often had too much evidence to be emailed. He noted also that he would take hard copies to court for more than one case at a time.

Lown said he has received some evidence electronically, but that it depends on the individual detective or the police officer involved in the case. He said that there could be units “where it’s an office culture” to hand-deliver documents.

“But it definitely goes on in many courts, certainly in Dorchester and Roxbury,” he said.

Christian Williams, a criminal defense attorney practicing in both Suffolk and Norfolk counties, said, “Definitely in district court you don’t get stuff electronically. In my experience very, very rarely.”

Boyle said the BPD does not currently monitor how often officers go to court for discovery, or how evidence is presented. Yet the department’s own rules mandate that records of such appearances be kept. BPD Rule 320A states that the department’s supervisor of cases must issue court overtime slips to officers who are required to appear in court on an overtime basis.

“Every off-duty officer, under summons from a court, shall present his summons to the Supervisor of Cases in order to obtain a Court Overtime Slip,” the rule reads.

Police union contracts, including the four-hour overtime minimum, are currently being renegotiated after expiring June 30.

During last week’s city council meeting, Councilor Andrea Campbell questioned whether the mayor would commit to ending the four-hour minimum.

“With thousands of Bostonians calling for change and accountability in policing, we have to be absolutely more transparent about our police union contract negotiations and discussions,” said Campbell. “And this cannot be done completely in private and with no sense of the administration’s positions at the bargaining table. I want to know, for example, if the mayor is committed to the four-hour minimum for overtime shifts or if he’s doing something with respect to that as a step toward reducing overtime costs.”

The council approved Walsh’s budget last month, which included a reduction of $12 million in police overtime spending, to be reallocated to programs that fight systemic racism and inequities, like the Public Health Commission. Yet this cut was widely seen as symbolic, as department spending on overtime often far exceeds the annual overtime budget. Last year, the BPD’s overtime budget was $61 million but they actually spent almost $70 million.

“Our police overtime budget has ballooned over the years despite pledges from leadership to reduce these costs,” said Campbell in a statement to the Banner. “Eliminating the four-hour minimum and a review of the cost of [off-duty paid] details are the most obvious places to start to curtail overtime spending, and I expect to see changes in the next collective bargaining agreement.”

The department estimates that employees will use more than 1.2 million hours of overtime this year, and is still set to receive almost $61 million in overtime spending.

“What this proves is that there’s a lot of fat on the system. There are a ton of resources that could be reinvested,” said Lown. “It’s a question of political will.”

Besides the overtime expense, there’s a human cost to delivering documents and delaying evidence discovery.

Defendants awaiting case evidence sit in jail longer than necessary, said Lown, or are on the streets unable to move on with their lives. It takes a mental and physical toll on his clients, he said.

“I’ve had a defendant tell me this case is all they think about. They think about it when they first wake up in the morning, and they think about it when they lay down to go to bed,” Lown said.

“We’re at a time of reckoning and realizing that we have this opportunity to spend resources where they’re really needed,” he added. “Our leaders want to say that they care but are more interested in symbolic rather than systemic change.”

Yawu Miller contributed to this story.