The Honolulu Police Department had planned to use federal CARES Act funds for overtime expenses during the pandemic, but now that the department has identified overtime abuse, city taxpayers are left holding the bag.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell said on Wednesday that the CARES money will be “supplanted” with city funds.

“We will not allow CARES money to be used,” he said. “We’ll make sure the money is returned to the city and used for things like our small business grant program or Fish to Dish, or these other programs.”

HPD Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard looks on during press conference as Mayor Caldwell speaks to media during COVID-19 pandemic. October 28, 2020
Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard blamed her department’s officers and supervisors for the overtime abuse. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The mayor’s comments follow the HPD’s confirmation that numerous police officers logged more lucrative overtime hours than they were allowed, as reported by Civil Beat’s news partner Hawaii News Now.

Within a five-week period, officers should not have exceeded 100 hours each. Fifty-nine officers logged 130 hours or more, 10 officers logged 200 overtime hours or more, and two officers logged 300 hours or more, according to a department memo.

Chief Susan Ballard disbanded the city’s COVID-19 enforcement team as a result.

The mayor said Thursday it’s not yet clear exactly how much money was inappropriately spent on overtime.

When police commissioners asked Ballard about the situation at a meeting on Wednesday, the chief offered only vague answers.

“It’s going to be several, probably more than several, months before there is any type of information that can be resolved,” Ballard said.

Commissioner Michael Broderick asked the chief about what safeguards will be put in place so overtime abuse doesn’t happen again.

“Our supervisors are being held accountable because it’s their responsibility to make sure that they track the overtime,” she said, adding the department may change minimum requirements to become a supervisor.

Commissioner Richard Parry asked what brought about the audit, which revealed the overtime abuse.

“That’s part of the investigation,” Ballard said. “So I really can’t get into specifics. It was something that caught our eye. We asked somebody to run some numbers and we looked a little further and we’re like, uh, this is something we look further into.”

Masked HPD Honolulu Police officer patrols near the Waikiki substation. October 28, 2020
Chief Susan Ballard wouldn’t say whether she was confident officers actually worked all the overtime hours they said they did. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Parry mentioned the officers that claimed to have worked 300 overtime hours, in addition to their normal duties, and asked whether Ballard was confident that the officer actually did work all those hours.

“That’s all going to be part of the investigation,” she said.

“Why does this take several months?” Parry asked.

“Because there is a large number of people who participated in this program,” Ballard responded.

“And we have to pull overtime cards, we have to pull work records, we have to do interviews of all these people to make sure the officers have a very thorough and fair investigation that is done, so that if any discipline is meted out, that we give them the due process that is required by the collective bargaining agreement.”

Parry said the situation is “very troubling” and he wanted answers more quickly than in several months.

Getting more information about overtime abuse and CARES spending in general has been tough.

Civil Beat requested copies of the audits that HPD completed that caught the overtime abuse, but HPD has not responded. Civil Beat also asked HPD for data showing all officers’ overtime earnings in 2019 and 2020, but the department rejected the request citing concerns about officer privacy. An identical request to the city’s human resources department has received no response whatsoever.

The city has also not responded to a Civil Beat request for an updated itemized list of all CARES Act expenditures. Honolulu does not post that information online. The mayor has indicated no intention to do so, saying that spending totals posted on the city’s dashboard should be sufficient. But the dashboard doesn’t break spending down into categories like overtime or list which companies have received no-bid contracts for CARES-funded services.

Previously released CARES spending data showed HPD had spent $16.5 million on overtime between March and September.

Even before the pandemic, overtime spending was a growing problem at HPD.

The department’s overtime costs nearly doubled in five years, from Fiscal Years 2015 to 2019, particularly after Ballard took over as chief in late 2017, according to a report from the city auditor. In Fiscal Year 2019, which ended in June 2019, the department spent over $38 million on overtime. That was an over $10 million increase from the previous year.

News of the overtime abuse was reported by journalists who obtained a leaked document, not by the department making an announcement. However, at the Police Commission meeting, Commissioner Carrie Okinaga thanked Ballard for being “very transparent.”

“To the extent that there was inappropriate behavior, this clearly sends a strong message, and I wanted to express my appreciation for that,” she said.

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