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Huge overtime hours for Independence police prompt questions about safety, oversight

A police officer stands in a large room filled with tables and chairs with some flags and a large dry erase board. Fresh gray paint coats the walls and a black bar with a thin blue line accent the room.
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
Acting Public Information Officer Matt McLaughlin discusses in February some of the renovation work done inside the Independence Police Department. He is standing in the shift briefing room that he described as being "reconfigured and redone" as part of the paid overtime work performed by a officer of the department.

Records show that two Independence police employees reported working more than 1,000 hours of overtime in 2021, raising questions about safety and who's watching extra pay at City Hall.

As Independence continues investigating possible overtime abuse in its police department, newly obtained records show other officers logged more than 1,000 hours of extra time last year.

Overtime slips provided to the Midwest Newsroom in response to a records request show Independence police officer Eric Simpson reported working 1,900 hours of overtime in 2021. Sgt. Eric Onstott was paid for 1,228 hours of overtime that same year. 

To work that many overtime hours, the two officers would have had to work 38 and 24 hours every week, respectively, on top of their regular work hours.

Ken Novak, a professor of criminal justice and criminology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said officers working large amounts of overtime is “risky behavior” that can endanger officers and the people they interact with while policing.

“I think it’s pretty clear that anybody, not just police officers, is susceptible to fatigue when they work too much,” Novak said. “It takes on a particular nuance when you think about the police because of the job that they have. They have to be alert, they have to have good cognitive processing, they’re interacting with people in high-stress situations.”

A whistleblower alerted city officials to possible overtime abuse in the police department, prompting the start of an investigation in February.

Previous reporting showed that master officer Kevin Nightingale received nearly $170,000 in overtime pay on top of his regular salary in 2021, enough to make him the city’s highest paid employee that year.

Records showed that Nightingale reported 2,800 hours of overtime last year, much of it for time spent renovating the city’s jail. That included an instance of 21 hours of overtime in a single day and several other overtime shifts lasting 15 hours or more

So far, none of the officers have been disciplined or accused of wrongdoing. The city did name a new acting police chief — Adam Dustman — shortly after announcing the investigation. The previous acting police chief was Ken Jarnigan.

No limits

Independence has no limits on the amount of overtime a police officer can work. The city indicated it may adopt an overtime policy, but hasn’t done so yet.

Independence hired Dan Nelson, a former chief deputy prosecutor for Jackson County now in private practice, to investigate the police department. He declined to comment for this story.

Independence spokesperson Meg Lewis confirmed last week the investigation involves overtime usage in the department as a whole. Lewis declined to answer questions about Simpson’s or Onstott’s overtime hours, citing the pending investigation.

Because of their overtime in 2021, Simpson and Onstott were the city's second- and third-highest paid employees, respectively, last year.

Simpson made $138,420 in overtime pay on top of his regular salary while Onstott collected $100,735 of extra income.

Simpson and Onstott more than doubled their regular salaries with overtime hours.

Simpson’s overtime slips show he worked more than 14 hours of overtime in a single day on 20 occasions in 2021. On five of those days he reported working 18 hours of overtime in a 24-hour period.

On Nov. 13, Simpson clocked 20 hours of overtime. He worked 12 hours of overtime the next day.

Onstott regularly worked 12-hour shifts of overtime and worked for more than 18 hours of overtime in a single day on a handful of occasions.

Both officers did not respond to a request for comment on the nature of their overtime hours.

'Very high-risk situation'

Unlike Nightingale, all of Simpson’s and Onstott’s overtime involved police work. Simpson spent the majority of his overtime hours working “manpower shortages.” More than half of Onstott’s overtime shifts were spent patrolling for impaired drivers or hazardous moving vehicles.

Novak said it's risky for anyone to work more than 18 hours in a single day, but it's especially dangerous for police officers due to the nature of their work.

“It’s a different scenario because they’re driving cars, they’re working late at night, they’re interacting with people and they have guns,” Novak said. “All of those things just make for a very high-risk situation.”

The revelations in the police department came more than a year after an audit reported a lack of oversight and accountability in payroll and timekeeping practices at Independence Power & Light, the city’s electric utility. The audit recommended a city-wide adoption of a new timekeeping system.

The findings of that audit found payroll records didn’t always match timesheet records and recommended Independence city manager Zach Walker expedite the implementation of the new timekeeping system.

Salary data obtained by the Midwest Newsroom showed the city spent $5.9 million on overtime last year. The police department accounted for $2.7 million of that overtime pay. That’s nearly 46% of the city’s total overtime compensation.

Novak said police working large amounts of overtime is becoming more common throughout the country because of rising law enforcement resignations and retirements, as well as fewer new officers entering the field.

The practice creates what Novak called a slippery slope for police officers that can lead to problematic situations and more stress in an already stressful job.

“The last thing I think we need is a bunch of fatigued officers interacting with people in high-stress scenarios where they may need to make split-second decisions,” Novak said. “That’s a recipe for disaster.”

Oversight

Independence Councilman Michael Steinmeyer, who has been critical of Walker’s handling of the alleged overtime abuse, said there have been no updates to the city council on the investigation since February. He said there’s been no mention of other officers with excessive overtime.

Steinmeyer called for a closed-door meeting to review Walker’s performance after the investigation of the police department’s overtime use was announced in February. That didn’t happen because not enough council members showed up to hold an official meeting.

Steinmeyer said the overtime issue reaches far beyond the actions of a few officers. He said it’s a matter of who in the city’s government knew what about the alleged abuse and when they knew it.

“There’s plenty of layers of failure in our city. How come payroll didn’t catch this? How come finance didn’t catch this? How come the finance and audit committee didn’t catch this?” Steinmeyer said. “That’s the broader discussion the taxpayers are going to want us to have — how do we prevent this in the future?”

In an interview with Fox 4 after his election, mayor-elect Rory Rowland said he believed the overtime issues stretched far beyond the police department. He said the city manager position will be evaluated under his tenure.

This story comes from the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism collaboration including IPRKCUR 89.3Nebraska Public Media NewsSt. Louis Public Radio and NPR.

Kavahn Mansouri is the Midwest Newsroom's investigative reporter.
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