Overtime on DWI cases inflates one Officer’s salary to $172,000

As a senior officer in the Houston Police Department, William Lindsey Jr. received a salary of about $72,000 last year.

Because he is on the department’s DWI Task Force, however, Lindsey’s overtime pay put him at an income level rivaling Mayor Bill White and Police Chief Harold Hurtt.

The 27-year HPD veteran grossed more than $100,000 in overtime pay in 2005, and he wasn’t the only task force member pulling in a six-figure income.

Two others in the unit, including Lindsey’s supervisor, were boosted above the $100,000 income level last year with significant help from overtime pay.

Though police and prosecutors defend the hefty overtime as an effective means of getting drunken drivers off Houston’s streets, critics of the practice say many of those hours are an unnecessary expense that increases the risk of putting physically and mentally fatigued officers on duty.

Lindsey’s total income of more than $172,576 from HPD last year put his pay above White’s $165,000 but below Hurtt’s $184,000. The mayor and police chief are not eligible for overtime pay.

Among the other task force members with six-figure incomes in 2005 was Lindsey’s supervisor, Sgt. Edward Robinson, whose $76,055 in overtime pay boosted his overall compensation to $161,722.

Senior police officers like Lindsey are paid roughly $50,000 to $70,000 in salary, before overtime, depending on various incentives for education and certifications, according to employee records obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

The police department was still working late last week to compile a list of DWI Task Force members. But the Chronicle confirmed the names of at least eight officers who were in the unit during 2005.

Those officers were paid a total of $317,000 in overtime last year. That figure made up 38 percent of their total compensation, which averaged about $103,000.

In addition to the more than $100,000 in overtime pay he collected in 2005, Lindsey was paid more than $85,000 in overtime in 2004. He refused to comment last week on his overtime or on a disciplinary record that includes a 15-day suspension in 1990 for submitting inaccurate overtime pay requests.

Police chief unconcerned. Hurtt, who learned about the high overtime pay after Chronicle inquiries, said he doesn’t worry about the public’s perception of the spending.

“If the officer is truly earning it, I think the public is well-aware of the staffing levels at the Houston Police Department,” he said, referring to manpower shortages that have sparked other overtime programs since Hurricane Katrina evacuees came to town. “And I also think the public is well-aware that certain officers have special training.”

Police officials say the overtime pay for the DWI Task Force is necessary because of the nature of the job, which requires officers to work nights — when more drunken drivers are out — and then testify in daytime court hearings for previous arrests.

A typical task force officer works from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Some then have to go to various courts for hearings on weekday mornings, said Lt. Robert Manzo, a police spokesman.

In such cases, they are paid overtime for court appearances and, often, for the period between their night shifts and the hearings. Still others work overtime shifts on their days off.

The system is laid out in the officers’ collective-bargaining agreement, which was negotiated with the city while Lee Brown, a former police chief, was mayor.

HPD’s budget director, Larry Yium, said officers’ salaries and court overtime are paid out of the general fund, the tax- and fee-supported portion of the budget that covers most city operating costs. Currently, the department is using two grants totalling $257,000 from the Texas Department of Transportation to reimburse overtime costs associated with DWI enforcement, he said.

Yium said he isn’t surprised that some officers get large overtime payments.

“I’m aware that we have officers who approach this number because of the nature of their assignments,” he said. “We always periodically look at that to make sure they’re working within their guidelines and it’s something that the supervisors and others can justify.”

Manzo said adding officers to the task force wouldn’t cut overtime costs.

“If we doubled the size of the DWI Task Force, then we would presumably have double the number of subpoenas, which would mean the amount of paid overtime for going to court would double,” he said.

Officers are prohibited from working more than 16 hours in a 24-hour period, Manzo said, or more than 80 hours in a workweek, without a shift supervisor’s approval.

Defense attorneys who specialize in DWI cases contend some task force members manipulate arrests to accumulate overtime.

“They switch defendants or piggyback on each other’s cases,” said lawyer J. Gary Trichter.
“They get additional officers involved, because it bolsters (the DWI case), which is valid.”

But, in many cases, he added, task force members bring in other officers who collect overtime for their involvement, although they were not really needed.

Marc Brown, who heads the misdemeanor division at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said DWI cases often require more than one officer to appear in court. Prosecutors, for example, need the testimony of the arresting officer, who may have relied on help from a colleague with the specialized training to give a field sobriety test.

This is especially true with officers in a large city, as opposed to those from suburban departments, Brown said. The sheer number of Houston patrol officers means many aren’t specialized to handle drunken-driving cases they encounter on patrol. State law requires certification for officers to conduct breath tests. Special training also is required for officers to know what to look for when conducting eye tests of suspected drunken drivers.

Other agencies streamlined
However, unlike Houston police, most DWI cases filed by Texas Department of Public Safety troopers are handled by one trooper, said DPS spokeswoman Tela Mange.

She added that, even with two-person units, one trooper will work the DWI investigation while the other directs traffic. Only the investigator goes to court in most cases, she said.

“I’m not aware of situations where there would be multiple troopers testifying, unless one trooper saw the original (offense) and someone else backed him up,” Mange said. “But that would be very unusual.”

She noted that, unlike HPD, the DPS requires all troopers to be certified in field-sobriety testing and operating breath-test machines.

“It only takes one DPS trooper to make an arrest,” Trichter said. “But with the HPD task force, they get at least three, sometimes four, people involved.”

In many cases, all of those officers testify at trial, where they compile more overtime hours, Trichter said.

Hans Marticiuc, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, said Lindsey’s overtime pay doesn’t concern him.

“I don’t know how else you get around that,” he said. “He’s certainly deserving of the overtime if he’s making the arrests and (prosecutors) are putting him on the trial docket.

“If you’re working it, then you have a right to it,” Marticiuc said. “It’s good for him and certainly a benefit to the public if he’s getting drunks off the streets.”

Houston police made almost 12,600 DWI arrests in 1985, but the total had dropped by about half by 2004, according to HPD statistics. The district attorney’s office does not keep statistics on DWI conviction rates, Brown said.

The decline in drunken-driving arrests has been attributed largely to changing social norms.
In the courtroom

Last week, at least two DWI cases in which task force members testified ended in acquittal.
Defense lawyer Sam Adamo, who represented one defendant, said he and other DWI specialists have been attempting to inform jurors about the task force and the overtime pay, but they often are blocked by judges and prosecutors.

“These guys are like small-town speed traps,” Adamo said. “Regular officers have to work extra jobs. But these (task force) guys don’t have to, because they’re making so much money coming down to the courthouse.”

Hurtt said that practice, if true, would concern him.

“What we’ll do is have supervisors do an audit of their citations,” he said, “and if it’s occurring, we’ll take corrective action.”

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