Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard has criticized her officers’ overuse of federally funded overtime during the pandemic, but she’s been allowing her officers to double their salaries with overtime for years, according to city data obtained by Civil Beat. 

In just the first nine months of 2020, Sgt. Robert Cavaco earned $71,607 in regular pay and $119,014 in overtime. That’s a total of $190,622 – more than Mayor Kirk Caldwell makes in an entire year

Cpl. Thayne Costa also earned $71,607 in regular pay in that time period, plus $133,084 in overtime. With a total of $204,691 earned between January and the end of September, he’s on track to make more than Police Chief Susan Ballard this year.

The chief makes $205,800 annually and doesn’t earn overtime. 

HPD Honolulu Police officers patrol along Kalakaua Avenue during COVID-19 pandemic. October 28, 2020
Some Honolulu police officers have doubled or even tripled their base pay with overtime. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Costa is just one of two dozen officers who have at least doubled their regular salaries with overtime in the first three quarters of this year, according to a list of the city’s highest paid employees that covers Jan. 1 through Sept. 30. And the list doesn’t even count special duty pay when officers are paid by private entities to act as security.

“The overtime pay is astounding. The word that came to mind is bonkers,” said Honolulu Councilman Tommy Waters, who chairs the public safety committee. “Can you imagine when you add special duty to those numbers?”

An anonymous source sent Civil Beat a document showing overtime pay for HPD in 2017, 2018 and the first nine months of 2019. An HPD source who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation confirmed that the document was authentic.

Separately, Civil Beat obtained a list of the top 30 earners among all city officials for the first nine months of 2020.

Several of this year’s biggest overtime earners have been named on the department’s top earners list before, according to the documents. 

Cpl. Mykle Moya had already earned $176,676 by September of this year. He made more – $184,150 – in the first nine months of 2019 and earned $200,955 in 2018, the top earners list shows. 

Costa was on track to make $341,331 in 2019, according to the breakdown. That would be more than any other city employee, including HART Director Andy Robbins who makes about $317,000 annually and Medical Examiner Masahiko Kobayashi, who earns $273,024 per year. 

However, the department won’t say whether the corporal actually did make that much in 2019.

Civil Beat asked HPD for data showing overtime earnings for each officer in 2019 and 2020. The department rejected the request, citing concerns about officer privacy.  The department wouldn’t even share data showing the number of overtime hours each officer worked in the last five years. 

Meanwhile, this kind of information is routinely shared with the public in other cities, including Boston, Phoenix, New York and Seattle

Waters, who is expected to become the chair of the City Council in January, said it’s ironic that Ballard talks about the importance of transparency when her department won’t release comprehensive overtime data. He plans to ask the council’s new budget committee chair to take a close look at overtime expenditures.

“I can’t blame the individual police officers,” Waters said. “They’re out there working, earning a living to support their families. I think it’s an internal HPD policy and procedure breakdown.”

The police department has been under fire recently because officers on the city’s COVID-19 enforcement teams were found to be logging more overtime than Ballard allowed. 

Ballard blamed her officers and their supervisors for exceeding the department-imposed overtime limits, but an anonymous letter from one of her subordinates said it was Ballard’s “poor management” of the department that allowed it to happen. 

The chief told police commissioners on Wednesday that officers are angry with her because she ended the lucrative COVID-19 enforcement shifts.

“It upset a lot of people because they no longer had all that extra money,” she said. “People need to learn to live within their means. Any time, when it comes to money, things turn nasty. As we all know, money is the root of all evil.”

Ballard would not agree to an interview to discuss her department’s overtime costs. Messages left with the officers mentioned in this story were not returned on Friday with the exception of retired Cpl. Patrick Fo, who had no comment.

As of mid-November, HPD had spent or planned to spend over $17 million in overtime funded by the CARES Act, the federal economic stimulus passed in response to the pandemic, according to a database of CARES expenditures over $50,000 provided by the city.

It’s not yet clear how much overtime the department spent in 2020 using regular city funds.

A Growing Problem

Honolulu police overtime has been increasing for years, according to a report from the city auditor. 

In Fiscal Year 2015, the department spent under $20 million on overtime. Five years later, it has almost doubled to over $38 million. In that time, the cost per full-time employee increased 16%, the report states.

The report attributes the spike to increased staffing in patrol districts. According to city police officers, the chief wanted more boots on the ground despite staffing shortages. 

In five years, there has been a 77% increase in vacant positions, according to the auditor. As of Fiscal Year 2019, the department had over 300 vacancies. The department told the auditor the reason for the decreased staffing was a large number of retirements. 

As of Dec. 14, HPD had 279 vacancies, or 13% of the 2,143 positions the city budget allows.

More work and fewer people to do it is a recipe for overtime increases. 

“At some point it becomes dangerous on the job, working that many hours,” Waters said.

Officers are racking up the extra pay at a time when the city is trying to fill a $400 million hole in its budget because of the coronavirus pandemic – a problem that is likely to require furloughs next year. 

Police Commissioner Doug Chin said that he will take a look at HPD’s overtime spending as one of three commissioners in charge of examining HPD’s budget and making recommendations.

“These stories about HPD overtime are very serious, especially during the economic crisis that the city is facing,” he told Civil Beat.

Mayor-Elect Rick Blangiardi was endorsed by the police union during his campaign. He offered no comment on the overtime spending. Chad Blair/Civil Beat

Ballard told police commissioners that the department is planning to cut back on overtime, but she didn’t say by how much.

“We’re going to be restricting the amount of overtime they can work,” she said, and added that the department will use a computer system to prevent officers who have exceeded their limits from signing up for additional overtime shifts.

The overtime isn’t just a short-term expense. For officers hired prior to July 2012, their pension is based on the “High Three” – their three most lucrative years of work. That includes overtime pay. 

Officers close to retirement are known to volunteer for more overtime hours to pad their retirement compensation, a practice known as “spiking.” 

City Budget Director Nelson Koyanagi said at a budget hearing earlier this year that for every dollar police officers make, the city pays 41 cents into their retirement. 

“That’s just another hit that we have to take,” he told City Council members. 

Civil Beat shared its overtime data with Mayor-elect Rick Blangiardi’s campaign secretary Jennifer Armstrong and requested an interview with him to discuss his opinions on overtime costs and how he will address them. He declined to comment.

Return On Investment

Despite the increased use of overtime, the HPD still struggles to solve cases — one of its primary missions, according to city, state and federal data.  

The department’s clearance rate – a measure of how many crimes it solves – has been decreasing since 2012 and hit a historic low in 2018, according to data collected by the Attorney General’s Office and the FBI.

Last year, the department cleared only 25 of every 100 violent crimes reported and only cleared five of every 100 property crimes reported, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program. That’s an overall clearance rate of 7%, which is below the national average for cities of Honolulu’s size. 

“The clearance rate does not reflect the amount of money we’re spending,” Waters said. 

Ballard has disputed those numbers, yet she shared stats with Waters’ office and the police commissioners that are very similar. According to the stats she provided, HPD closed only 30.4% of violent crimes and less than 6% of property crimes reported in 2019. That’s an overall clearance rate of 7.8%.

“Are we satisfied with 7.8? Quite frankly, no,” Assistant Police Chief Rade Vanic told police commissioners on Wednesday. “We’re all looking to do better.”

The city auditor’s office noted in its report that clearances were declining for rape, robbery and larceny theft. In the last five years, clearance rates for those crimes have decreased by 34%, 10% and 57%, respectively, according to the auditor. 

Overall, in the last five years, total offenses are up 5% but total arrests are down 40%, according to the audit report, which compared Fiscal Years 2015 through 2019. 

Enforcement of driving-related violations, including driving under the influence, moving citations and hands-free driving violations, were all down in Fiscal Year 2019 compared to previous years, the auditor found. 

Generally, the community is feeling less safe and less confident in the department, according to the 2019 National Community Survey. 

The percentage of respondents who felt “excellent or good” regarding their overall feeling of safety in Honolulu declined 17% between Fiscal Years 2015 and 2019. 

And only about half of respondents felt “excellent or good” about the quality of the island’s police services, the survey found. That measure has declined by 5% in five years.

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