Even in these tough times, some South Floridians have jobs that let them skip out of work, take long lunches, knock off early on Fridays and still collect a full day's pay. Who are they? Cops at local police departments, and taxpayers are footing the bill.
Longer workdays have become the rule for many employees since the U.S. and local economy tanked. But the Sun Sentinel found the workplace has been kinder to some policemen and women: Paid to serve and protect, they regularly leave their beats and cities before their shifts are over.
The story is told by the cops' SunPass toll records. Comparing them with police officers' time sheets, the newspaper found police from Plantation to Miami claiming they'd worked a full shift but heading home early.
The practice has cost police departments untold thousands of dollars in unearned salaries, but the impact goes far beyond the dent in taxpayers' wallets. Whether police officers are vanishing with or without their commanders' knowledge, it's proof of a major management problem, law enforcement experts say.
It also can be risky. Cops who skip out may endanger fellow officers who depend on them for backup in emergencies.
The bottom line: "Citizens are paying for police protection they're not getting," said Dennis Kenney, a former Florida police officer who is now a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
Many neighborhoods do not have enough police protection as it is, said Patti Lynn, president of the nonprofit Broward Coalition of homeowners and business associations. "When somebody goes home early," she said, "it jeopardizes the health and safety of every citizen."
Among cops, it's no secret that some know how to game the system. On the law enforcement blog Leoaffairs.com, anonymous posters have been writing for years about "early birds flying the coop," trains departing the station, and cops signing off duty from their living rooms.
"You've never slid out early and went 10-7 [out of service] from your bed?" one poster asked.
Because police work can be grueling, unpredictable and sometimes hard to reconcile with the responsibilities of a spouse or parent, many departments give officers some leeway.
Some supervisors allow cops to leave early as comp time without recording it or even permit entire shifts to go home after another squad has come on duty. In Plantation, for instance, officers often report for duty about 15 minutes before their shift formally begins, so the brass allows some flexibility as to when they can head home.
Open relatively minor give-and-take in scheduling is one thing. But the Sun Sentinel found other more egregious work habits in the commuting histories of South Florida police officers. Using the same SunPass data it mined earlier this year to document widespread police speeding, the Sun Sentinel's investigation revealed:
• A major in Davie left work after less than a full day two-thirds of the time over nine months, cutting out especially early on Fridays. The 23-year veteran announced his retirement two days after the Sun Sentinel shared its findings with a town councilman.
• Father-and-son officers in Plantation already had made it to a tollbooth in Palm Beach County — 30 miles away — by the time their shifts ended on most days. Together, they spent 182 hours of scheduled work time outside the city over 15 months. That's 4 1/2 workweeks.
• A Miami officer headed home 30 minutes to four hours early on dozens of occasions. A fellow officer arrived to work late, as much as three hours after her shift started, on nearly one of every five days.
• A detective in Plantation regularly went home to
"This whole thing opened our eyes," said Erik Funderburk, Plantation's deputy police chief. "The bottom line is we're accountable to be here."
Police brass in that city have resorted to randomly calling entire squads back to the station to ensure officers are where they're supposed to be. They first became aware of a problem in January, when the Sun Sentinel alerted them to SunPass records showing cops driving their patrol cars in excess of 90 mph — just going back and forth to work.
The toll records, with a simple date and time stamp, now have provided grounds for discipline and internal affairs investigations across South Florida police departments. Experts say the problems exposed are likely more widespread because only cops who have police-issued SunPass transponders and regularly drive on toll roads have come under scrutiny.
To find officers who skipped out, the Sun Sentinel examined records of 46 commuters from police departments in Sunrise,
A total of 39 left before the end of their shifts or after less than a full day at least once a week. Most were patrol officers and sergeants with set shifts who regularly headed home 15 minutes to more than an hour ahead of schedule. The others had more flexible schedules but in total put in far fewer hours than they were paid to work.
Police officials said some of the early departures may be attributable to undocumented comp time, but acknowledged abuses had occurred.
Keith Wenzel, a police sergeant in Dallas who teaches police ethics classes around the country, said some officers try to outfox the clock "in probably every police department in the U.S."
The same sense of entitlement that leads cops to speed off duty may be the cause, he said. Half the officers the Sun Sentinel found leaving early were among those whose toll records tagged them as speeders.
"Cops are in this job to make people do the right thing, obey the laws, obey the rules," Wenzel said. "They think they're above the law. That attitude gets cops in trouble."
In Miami Beach last year, unauthorized absences by local police got so out of hand that two officers partying at a bar while on duty went unnoticed — until one took a woman for a ride on his ATV and crashed, severely injuring two beachgoers. It later emerged that several of the officers' supervisors had come in late or left early that day. Miami Beach police took swift action and stopped cops from skipping out, records show.
Police leaders told the Sun Sentinel that technology and take-home cars have made it easier to leave early. Officers file their reports electronically and in many cities sign off over the radio without reporting back to the station.
Ducking out is most prevalent on overnight shifts.
"That's the shift with the least supervision," said Raymond Martinez, Miami Beach police chief. "The brass aren't there. The citizens are asleep. It's only the criminals out."
In Plantation, dispatch and toll records reviewed by the Sun Sentinel revealed several instances of cops sent on service calls after they had left the city. All of the calls were near the end of a shift, and other officers responded. Plantation's deputy chief said dispatchers should have assigned the calls to the next shift in the first place.
Funderburk said that residents never were endangered as a result of cops slipping out. The department staggers its shifts — as one goes off duty, another already has arrived.
"There's never a time when there's not sufficient manpower on the roads," Funderburk said.
Many officers in his city work some extra hours without collecting overtime, so police commanders provide flexibility for employees to leave early on occasion. "I think some people took advantage of that,'' he said.
Kenney, the ex-cop/professor, said supervisors are responsible for knowing where their officers are and ensuring they stay in their jurisdictions while on the clock.
"Management is either complicit or unaware,'' he said. "Either way, it's bad."
Some in the ranks of South Florida's police brass were reluctant to even discuss cops leaving early or explain how it happens.
Pembroke Pines' officials said two of their cops who headed home while on duty were probably saving breaks and taking them at the end of their shifts, a practice allowed there but forbidden at many departments.
Cops leaving their posts erodes the public's trust in police and endangers citizens as well as officers, Kenney said.
"It's putting other officers at risk if my backup is off somewhere else. There's nobody to come and help me,'' he said. "There ought to be serious consequences.''