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Editorial: HPD’s OT violations taint COVID actions

Millions of dollars have flowed into the state for mitigation of the coronavirus pandemic, and some of that is aimed at curbing the ongoing spread of disease through enforcing public health rules.

It’s absolutely a necessary investment — assuming that it’s not money thrown into the wastebasket, or pocketed for personal enrichment.

That is the fear of the taxpaying public, and the Honolulu Police Department brass. The $13.8 million in federal dollars allotted for HPD’s enforcement overtime pay has fueled a gravy train for dozens of officers taking advantage of the new well of funds.

Plainly, this fuel line needs to be controlled, and the investigation of any wrongdoing conducted in public view, with as little interruption in the enforcement service as possible.

It’s critical to keep a lid on violations of the county’s various regulations minimizing the transmission of the potentially deadly COVID-19 virus, everything from requirements to wear masks to size limits for social gatherings.

The surveillance to discover and discourage violations — estimated at more than 60,000 by now — is a key element. That task has been handled mainly by a group of about 160 officers in “teams” willing to work overtime to get it done. They are paid with money from the federal CARES Act, which is due to expire at year’s end.

However, an excessive draw on the funds came to light with the disclosure by Shannon Alivado, who chairs the Honolulu Police Commission. She cited an internal HPD memo detailing the weekly claims for overtime — in some cases, for more than 70 hours per week.

An audit referenced in the memo pointed to 59 officers who claimed at least 130 hours between Sept. 27 and Oct. 31 — 10 each claiming 200 hours, and two claiming 300 hours or more apiece. That strains credulity.

Alivado was elected chair in January, replacing Loretta Sheehan, who had been outspoken in criticism of the police force when warranted and advocacy for transparency there.

It is encouraging that Alivado has stepped up to bring this OT issue into the sunlight, where it belongs; otherwise, it’s entirely unclear when this would have become public knowledge, if ever. Further, confronting such problems openly is a posture that all the commissioners should adopt, on this and other matters.

For their part, HPD officials should reassess the decision to suspend the use of the special COVID-19 enforcement teams. Police Chief Susan Ballard has suspended the use of the teams while she figures out where the problems lie. Alivado said she thinks that’s appropriate.

That may be so, but Oahu can’t afford to let its enforcement efforts lapse indefinitely, particularly with cases rising and holiday gatherings anticipated. Ballard is due to answer questions about the problem at the next commission meeting, Dec. 2, Alivado said.

The chief needs to address the status of the available funds, how quickly work can resume, how the program can be overseen more carefully, and what can be done about the officers who, allegedly, have filed unwarranted claims.

More generally, a written statement released Friday by HPD indicated that officers and supervisors found violating OT policies will be disciplined. Those measures could include suspension and restriction from further OT or special assignments.

Misuse of public funds, regardless of the extent, buttresses arguments against the program, such as those raised by City Councilman Tommy Waters. He said the money would be better used by the jobless and those needing rental assistance, food or medicine.

As Oahu activity for the holiday season ramps up, so does the need for this police service, and it does require money. But wasting money? That is an insult to all who have suffered through this crisis, and that has to stop.

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