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Honolulu Police Department suspends use of COVID enforcement team after overtime violations

The Honolulu Police Department has suspended the use of special COVID-19 enforcement teams after an internal audit revealed “multiple violations” of the department’s overtime policies.

A group of about 160 police officers offered to work overtime to enforce city and state rules implemented to stop the spread of the coronavirus outbreak in Hawaii. An HPD internal review flagged potential abuse of overtime claims and has prompted investigations within the department, according to an HPD statement released Friday.

“Last week, HPD administrators learned of overtime irregularities and possible violations of department policy and notices. A subsequent review has revealed multiple violations of the department’s overtime policies and administrative investigations have been opened,” the statement said. “Officers and supervisors found to be in violation will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including suspension and restriction from working overtime and special duty assignments.” HPD said use of COVID enforcement teams has been suspended until further notice.

“This decision was made by the HPD administration independent of any outside sources and will allow us time to review the procedures. COVID-related complaints from the public will be handled by on-duty patrol officers based on availability,” the statement said.

HPD officials would not comment beyond the statement.

Honolulu Police Commission Chairwoman Shannon Alivado told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that officers were exceeding the 20 hours of overtime per week they are allowed to work. She received an internal memo from Nov. 10 reporting some officers were working more than 70 hours of overtime per week.

The memo referenced an audit of the enforcement teams, which reported that 59 officers put in for at least 130 hours between Sept. 27 and Oct. 31. Of those officers, 10 claimed 200 hours or more in overtime, including two who said they worked 300 hours or more during that period.

Three hundred hours of overtime during the five-week period averages out to 100-hour work weeks.

“The question is why wasn’t it caught earlier, and why was it being approved by supervisors knowing that (officers) have been going over the directive that only allows 20 hours?” Alivado said today. “Were there exceptions made or was there blatant disregard for the directive?”

Alivado said HPD Chief Susan Ballard suspending the use of the enforcement teams was appropriate while she figures out “where the mishaps are.”

The enforcement teams were established in early August by Ballard as Hawaii was experiencing a surge in new COVID-19 cases. Money from the federal CARES Act stimulus package has been funding the overtime salaries for the officers on the teams.

By late October, $16 million of $17 million in federal aid earmarked for overtime on Oahu was for police, according to a report on CARES Act expenditures that Mayor Kirk Caldwell sent to the Honolulu City Council. Deputy Chief John McCarthy told the Star-Advertiser a week later that police had reported 60,000 or so coronavirus-related violations on Oahu.

Most of the complaints police received have been of people gathering in large groups, ignoring social distancing rules or neglecting to wear masks.

Before the enforcement teams were created, COVID-19 complaints were simply added on top of the officers’ normal duties — a difficult task for a police force plagued for years by staffing shortages that were already boosting overtime expenses.

The ongoing investigations come just a few months after City Councilman Tommy Waters took issue with the amount of federal money that the city was allocating to HPD for coronavirus enforcement. He said the federal aid could have been used for other areas of need, such as rental assistance, medical services or food.

Alivado said the Police Commission will be asking Ballard about the overtime violations during the next commission meeting.

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