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Department watchdog minds police overtime clock

As the Police Department's internal prosecutor for misconduct cases, Inspector Christopher Flacco is accustomed to not being the most popular man at Police Headquarters. His new assignment as overtime czar is unlikely to win him many more friends.

As the Police Department's internal prosecutor for misconduct cases, Inspector Christopher Flacco is accustomed to not being the most popular man at Police Headquarters. His new assignment as overtime czar is unlikely to win him many more friends.

Flacco, 44, is taking charge of the department's new Overtime Management Unit, which Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey created and charged with reining in the department's $72.5 million budget for extra-duty pay.

"I think the reason the commissioner chose me for this job is because I'm a no-nonsense kind of guy," said Flacco, an 18-year veteran.

Amid a city budget crisis, Mayor Nutter last month ordered the department to cut $23 million in spending in the fiscal year ending June 30. The bulk of those cuts, $14 million, will come from overtime.

Ramsey said his aim is to reduce the overtime costs with the least effect on public safety. But he said it would be difficult to fulfill the mayor's promise to reduce violent crime with a budget smaller than the $547.2 million the department spent last year.

"It's not easy," Ramsey said in an interview yesterday. "As we make more arrests, it means more time in court."

And more time in court means more overtime.

In addition to overtime cuts, the department will save $8 million by leaving 200 police vacancies unfilled, a setback in Nutter's campaign promise to add 500 officers to the 6,700-member force in five years.

The department will also lose 50 nonpatrol vehicles out of its total fleet of 1,700, saving $693,000. Ramsey said those vehicles would not be needed with a smaller force.

Ramsey said that he had suspended other initiatives, such as his plan to restart a mounted unit. "I just can't be cutting one place and adding another place," he said recently to the Young Presidents' Organization.

But Ramsey said he preferred to reduce the size of the force rather than cut back on training and gear.

"Obviously, I could use more people," he told the audience of young corporate chiefs. "But to be honest with you, I'd rather have a small, well-equipped, well-trained force rather than a large, ill-equipped, untrained force."

The department's struggle to rein in overtime costs is a recurring issue that has bedeviled previous police commissioners.

Commanders say there is no way to eliminate overtime - officers need to stay late to process arrests they make near the end of their shifts, and detectives, particularly in the homicide unit, are under intense pressure to investigate crimes in the critical hours after a crime is first reported.

"If we have a spike in crime next year, we have to deal with it," said Ramsey.

A big component of overtime is court-related costs - the time officers must attend court to serve as witnesses. The city spends about $500,000 a week, or $26 million a year, on court-related overtime.

Police officials argue that they don't have much control over court-related overtime - judges schedule major trials, and the District Attorney's Office is responsible for issuing subpoenas for officers to serve as witnesses. If officers are not on their regular shifts when they come to court, the city is obliged to pay them a minimum of two hours of overtime even if no hearing takes place, as often happens.

No agency is responsible for controlling court-related overtime, said Deputy Mayor Everett A. Gillison, who has taken charge of efforts to coordinate the police, courts and prosecutors to address the issue.

"It's a multi-tentacled monster," said David C. Lawrence, the court administrator of the First Judicial District. Lawrence said the court makes an effort to schedule trials when officers are slated for day shifts and not on vacation, but inevitably trials get delayed.

"It's like a black hole," said John J. McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5. "To get the different people on the same page, that's something we've been trying to do for years."

Prosecutors agree there is no simple solution.

"There's no silver bullet to it," said John P. Delaney, chief of the District Attorney's Office's trial division. He said that some judges manage their trial lists poorly, scheduling too many trials at the same time.

But Delaney also said the Police Department could do a better job writing the reports that form the foundation for prosecution cases. Some reports are so unspecific about what officers witnessed that prosecutors are forced to subpoena many more officers than is necessary.

Ramsey said that the new Overtime Management Unit will look at all cases where more than four officers are listed as witnesses to analyze whether so many officers are necessary.

The unit will be looking closely at loosely written reports, some of which may be deliberately constructed to create overtime opportunities for police.

"No more creative writing," said Flacco. "There are savings to be done, believe me."

Flacco equates the court-related overtime budget to a cart full of apples that sits on the street, unguarded. "By the end of the day, the apples are all gone," he said.

"We're just making sure everybody understands it's being watched."