25 Investigates: Overworked police departments paying big money in overtime

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BOSTON — A few police officers in towns and cities around Massachusetts are making well over $200,000 a year and, in many cases, it's more than their police chief or city manager.

$233,906 in Weymouth.  $331,670 in Malden. $398,998 in Boston.

25 Investigates submitted public records requests to dozens of police departments in the Commonwealth to see how many hours of overtime officers in many towns have been working. We've been sorting through hundreds of documents and found, in some weeks, police had to work an extra 40-50 overtime hours partly because there just aren't enough officers to cover all the shifts.

In Boston, we found several officers who made well over six figures in just overtime last year, while several Brookline officers averaged almost 80 hours/week.

Our investigation found several departments, like Woburn, paid officers almost triple their base pay because of overtime and detail.

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So how did the overtime hours get so high?

Police tell us the answer lies partly in public backlash against law enforcement. They say high profile cases like Alton Sterling, Tamir Rice or, most recently, Atatiana Jefferson have added to the rift between community and police and subtracted from the pool of would-be officers responding to your calls.

"Everybody’s always filming and police officers are always in the spotlight," said Angel Aviles, who is applying to be a Haverhill police officer. "So I think that kind of deters people from applying for fear of liability."

Undeterred, Aviles walked into the Haverhill police chief’s office in October to interview for a position the chief needed to fill.

"We’re very desperate," said Haverhill Chief of Police Alan Denaro. "It literally keeps me awake at night because if I have officers working 70-80 hours a week, I don’t want officers at 4 o’clock in the morning doing one of these (mimics falling asleep) and hitting a tree or another car. It’s very frightening for me that our officers have to work this amount of hours to get the job done."

Haverhill police has 89 officers on staff right now, but stands 20 officers short of the 109 positions budgeted. Still, the chief has to figure out how to protect the city 24-7.

"The difficult part is you don’t want to lower your standards," Denaro said. "We don’t want to bring an officer in, and they do to three, four, five years, and they say, 'No I’m going to do something else now.' That’s devastating -- the hundreds of hours we put in training these officers. When I got hired, you work someplace until you retired."

Not anymore. According to Police Executive Research Forum, 69 percent of voluntary resignations nationwide happen in the first 5 years.

"Nowadays, we are more focused on mental health issues, homelessness, substance-abuse, mentoring juveniles -- that’s our primary focus now -- where in the past it was more enforcement focused," Denaro added.

He blames a change in policing and a search for better work-life balance as main reasons.

"Older officers are more interested in working as much as they can and making as much as they can financially," he said. "The newer officers are more interested in how much time they can have off.

Lynn Police Chief Michael Kmiec says his department sees the same issues.

"It drives up the overtime and a lot of that is forced overtime," said Kmiec.

Resignations and retirements have left them with 25 unfilled positions.

"It's a huge concern," said Kmiec. "We know you can only stretch those officers for so long before it becomes a burden. Family life gets affected drastically and fatigue is definitely an issue. When you work multiple doubles in a row.

Police say those fatigued officers who are constantly being watched sometimes fear making a life-changing decision and end up leaving the force with no one to take their place.

"When I took the exam, there were several thousand people that were on the list to become Quincy police officers and now it’s down to about 140," said Quincy Police Chief Paul Keenan.

Filling the gaps can be difficult

"I just want to help my community," said Aviles. "I think of it as a bigger picture. I just wanted to give back. I just want to be able to be a bridge that gap and community policing."

Departments are wishing for more applicants like Aviles. Their officers are carrying guns, driving for several hours and are asked to make split-second life or death decisions -- sometimes on just four hours of sleep.

"You could see officers work 40-50 hours in overtime in a week, absolutely," said Denaro.

Our investigation found shorthanded departments across the country have no choice but to force officers to work longer shifts than desired. We found some police officers throughout the state are working 16-hour shifts, sometimes six days a week. Police say that's because the job is non-stop and even when you’re supposed to stop, you sometimes can’t.

"You start a road detail at 7:00 a.m. and then you’re supposed to work a four to midnight shift and then, all of a sudden, at 11:15 p.m. or 11:30 p.m., there’s a bad car accident or a stabbing or a big incident where you are forced to stay," said Quincy police officer Gregg Hartnett.

In Framingham, a double shift almost stopped a marriage proposal. The day officer Ryan Porter scheduled a romantic getaway to Iceland with his then-girlfriend, his department needed overtime hours.

"Around 6:00 a.m., I was told by the shift commander that I was actually going to be among four people forced over onto the dayshift," said Porter, who is also the president of the Framingham police union. "I’m in a panic calling her telling her I won’t be able to make the flight, so now we’re trying to figure out if we can reschedule things."

Luckiliy, Porter’s coworkers stepped in to fill that shift, just like they have to fill in for retirements, resignations, injuries and military deployments. Proving an officer's vow to serve the public can sometimes come first.

"With safety, I do worry about him," said his wife Sara Porter. "But they all look out for each other, so that helps you sleep at night."

But the non-stop nature of the job can take a toll on officers.

"We currently have a 16-hour rule," said Worcester Police Chief Steven Sargent. "After the 16 hours, you have an eight-hour break until you can get out back on the job."

But not all departments have those strict limits.

Doctors tell 25 Investigates, if overworked officers don't catch up on their sleep, the results can be dangerous.

"After being up 16 hours that is equivalent to a blood alcohol content of 0.05," said Dr. Anit Patel of Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital Sleep Center. "If you are up for 24 hours it is the same reaction time as having a blood alcohol content of 0.1 which is beyond the legal limit."

Doctors say when you have a lot of nights with a little sleep, it not only affects your heart-rate, oxygen levels and blood pressure levels, it can also affect the way you think.

"The issue with sleep debt is the person thinks they are going to make an adequate decision when, in reality, they don’t have that capability," said Patel.

Patel says the issue is exacerbated with jobs like law enforcement because of the stress that comes with it, and those officers agree.

"I would say getting through the shift is okay but then you get home and you’re staring at the ceiling because you’ve been running around," said Hartnett. "People coming at you with questions and trying to get through a crazy scene and now you get home and it’s not like doing construction where you just hop in bed and you have nothing really on your mind."

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So what's being done?

A couple departments told 25 Investigates they have implemented aggressive hiring plans and collective bargaining agreements to keep up with attrition.

However, there are no laws in place limiting the amount of hours officers can work. The closest thing to a solution we found from lawmakers was a proposal to allow for retired officers to work more detail hours like construction or sporting events.

"It would lift the 960-hour rule cap," said state representative Timothy Whelan. "It simplifies the equation retired officers have to operate under."

It's also an issue that's on the radar for the Massachusetts Police Association.