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Overtime pay draws concerns

Two-thirds of O.C. sheriff's deputies earn more than $100,000. Some may be violating department policy.

May 14, 2008|Stuart Pfeifer and Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writers

Boosted by what some officials consider to be out-of-control overtime spending, two-thirds of Orange County sworn sheriff's deputies earned more than $100,000 last year, according to records obtained by The Times.

Acting Sheriff Jack Anderson said he was so concerned by the figures that he has ordered monthly reports on overtime usage and vowed to launch disciplinary reviews of any deputies who exceeded the department's limit of 24 overtime hours per week.

Twenty-seven deputies were paid more than $75,000 in overtime last year, a figure Anderson said could have been reached only by deputies violating the department overtime rule.

The top overtime recipient was sheriff's investigator Theodore R. Harris, who made $120,000 in overtime, bringing his total pay to $221,000 -- more than then-Sheriff Michael S. Carona and all five members of the county Board of Supervisors. To reach that pay level, he had to work an average of more than 30 hours of overtime per week.

Harris, one of four deputies who earned more than $100,000 in overtime last year, worked most of his overtime on patrol assignments, leaving his investigator's desk for a patrol car. The bulk of the department's overtime went to employees at the county jails, who were paid $18.3 million in overtime during the 2006-07 fiscal year, compared with $8.4 million four years earlier.

Concern about the deputies' overtime pay comes shortly after the release of transcripts from a grand jury investigation that found some deputies at Theo Lacy Jail in Orange had napped or watched television while on duty, allowing handpicked inmates to discipline other prisoners.

According to records, deputies at Theo Lacy were paid $7.8 million in overtime in 2006-07. During that time, inmate John Derek Chamberlain was beaten to death while a deputy assigned to supervise him instead watched the television show "Cops" in his glass-enclosed guard booth.

Anderson said a shortage of deputies has forced the department to fill shifts with deputies working overtime. One jail wing at Theo Lacy is budgeted for 40 full-time employees but staffed exclusively by deputies working overtime, some driving from other stations to fill the shifts.

Last year, 1,122 sworn sheriff's employees were paid more than $100,000 -- more than triple the number reaching that level in 2003.

Anderson said he could not explain why managers within the department allowed so many deputies to exceed the department's 24-hour-per-week overtime limit. He said the department is now preparing monthly overtime reports that will make it easy for managers to determine how much overtime their deputies are working.

County officials and law enforcement experts said they were concerned that working excessive amounts of overtime would make it difficult for deputies to perform their jobs effectively.

Supervisor Chris Norby said he intended to address overtime spending later this month during interviews of the nine finalists vying to replace Carona, who resigned in January to focus on his upcoming criminal corruption trial.

The board will appoint his replacement June 3.

"There's a reason we don't want them to work too much overtime. We don't want them to be too tired," Norby said. "We've had concerns about this for a long time. Obviously, the department has been in flux. We look forward to appointing a permanent sheriff who will have the credibility to establish long-term policies."

George P. Wright, chairman of the Criminal Justice Department at Santa Ana College, said law-enforcement executives should consider the personal toll that excessive overtime places on officers.

"I wouldn't allow a person to work more than one overtime shift per week. And if he was doing it continuously, week after week after week, I'd look at it," Wright said. "Twenty-four hours per week to me is unreasonable. Stress is cumulative; it builds up over time. You might be able to do that two or three months and then you hit the wall and something bad happens."

In June 2007, a civil grand jury reviewing jail conditions after Chamberlain's death recommended the Sheriff's Department expand its hiring program to reduce the need for deputies on overtime.

Specifically, the panel concluded that as many as 40 new deputies be hired to work at Theo Lacy's Building B, which is staffed exclusively by deputies working overtime at a cost of $5.5 million. The jury concluded the money would be better used to cover the full-time salaries.

"The advantage of using overtime is that no additional pension or healthcare benefits must be paid," the grand jury wrote. "However, this savings is offset by the additional cost of overtime pay and the stress that overtime work could, in the long run, result in an increase in sick leave and poorer job performance."

Anderson said the only way that he can keep Building B open -- it houses more than 500 inmates -- is to continue to staff it with deputies working overtime.

"The sheriff's job is to incarcerate people. When the court keeps sending you people, you have to find room for them," Anderson said.

"The work has to be done. What's my alternative? Close one of the jails?"

Wayne Quint, president of the union that represents Orange County sheriff's deputies, said he believes they should be applauded for volunteering for overtime shifts, not ridiculed or investigated.

And $100,000 a year is not unreasonable pay for a peace officer, he said.

"I think they should make more. They put their lives on the line. They're filling a public safety position every time they work overtime," Quint said.

"Why isn't everyone lined up to do this job? It's a hard job. I hope what this story does is motivate good people to come and say, 'I want to be a sheriff's deputy.' Because at the end of the day, there's a shortage of people who want to do this ever-increasingly difficult job of ours."

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stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com

christine.hanley@latimes.com

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