Wednesday, August 17, 2005 | Nearly 1,100 San Diego police officers claim city and police administrators bilked them out of overtime income by illegally refusing to compensate officers for job-related activities they perform out of uniform, such as getting ready for court appearances and preparing investigative reports at home, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday.

The federal class-action suit will seek a jury award of $120 million or more for police officers who have been denied overtime pay and were misinformed as to what they can claim as overtime under federal labor law. The complaint also alleges that the city treats expense reimbursements as regular pay by taxing officers’ equipment and uniform allowances when the payments should be made in full.

Executive Assistant Chief of Police Operations Bill Maheu, who oversees the department’s budget, said that officers are fairly compensated for overtime as it is laid out in the Fair Labor Standards Act.

But police officers’ attorney Gregory Petersen says that police managers’ concerns are more about cutting costs than abiding by federal law.

“Homicide detectives, who aren’t given time to work on their cases at work, have to do it at home,” Petersen said. “That’s pretty egregious.”

Maheu said he didn’t know whether officers were working on reports at home, but that doing so was unnecessary.

“There’s not a reason to take it home and do it there,” Maheu said. “At the very least, you can take initial information and carry the report over to an investigator working the next shift if you have to.”

Maheu did acknowledge that the $900 annually doled out to an officer as a uniform allowance is now taxed and it used to be paid in whole “several years ago.” He said he remembers a revised legal interpretation of what the expense was as the cause for the switch.

Petersen said that if the city treats the reimbursements like salary by taxing it, then the San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System could make the case that employee contributions should be coming out of repayments to officers as well.

“The board has an obligation to look at that if in fact that’s true,” retirement board President Peter Prevolos said. “We’ve got to evaluate that and drill it down until it’s either incorrect or is indeed true. If it’s the truth, than we need to look at it.”

Petersen added that cops in several instances were also not being given uninterrupted half-hour breaks for each shift.

The City Attorney’s Office could not be reached Tuesday evening for comment.

The city charter orders the City Council to approve a balanced budget every year, and Maheu acknowledged that, traditionally, overtime costs are underestimated by millions of dollars. In the 2005 fiscal year, the department racked up $15 million in overtime expenses when only $6 million was budgeted, Maheu said.

Underestimating overtime costs is not just a police matter. Firefighters union Local 145 representative Johnnie Perkins said that San Diego Fire-Rescue’s budget estimated that $6.6 million would be spent in after-hours pay for fiscal year 2005, but the final tab was closer to $15 million.

The police department’s handling of overtime has gotten so bad, Petersen said, that managers encourage patrol officers to “keep your eyes closed on the way home” in order to avoid overtime costs that could incur if they were to happen upon an incident just before clocking out. He said that he has seen memos that direct officers to do just that.

Maheu said he is unaware of documents that bear those instructions, and said that such direction was inappropriate.

The officers’ attorney said that the city has “made a habit of funding its employment contracts with no money.” Department managers are mindful of keeping costs down, he said, even if it means skirting the federal labor laws.

Maheu disagreed, saying that the police department complied with the law.

He said that Police Chief Bill Lansdowne has implemented ways to save on overtime costs, such as working with the City Attorney’s Office to make sure that only subpoenaed officers go to court instead of every police officer listed in a case. Also, overtime work is pre-approved before it is assigned, he said, and people up and down the chain of command are familiar with overtime laws.

“There’s not a police agency in the world where the budget is not an issue,” he said. “In the same breath, there’s never someone who’s asked, ‘How much did you spend saving that person’s life?’”

Petersen said that he was hired when police officers wanted to know what was owed to them and what their rights were, but he added that overtime law is non-negotiable and not an item for collective bargaining discussions.

“You do not bargain with what the law gives you,” he said. “There is no need to. The law is that law.”

In 2000, Petersen represented 6,300 Los Angeles police who sued the city for being shortchanged overtime pay. The Los Angeles City Council settled the suit for $40 million before it reached court.

Petersen is representing nearly 1,100 city police officers in Tuesday’s suit as well as about 1,800 officers and their union, the San Diego Police Officers Association, in a civil suit filed last Tuesday that claims the city has not been funding retiree medical benefits that were promised to officers.

The first civil complaint, which was filed in federal court, alleges that City Attorney Mike Aguirre knew about the underfunding and tried to get city workers to “abandon vested pension benefits” for a $650 million bribe during a conference call he held with union leaders in January, a month after he took over as city attorney. Additionally, the city attorney was not authorized to collectively bargain on behalf of the city, the first suit states.

The first suit claims that the city was obligated to provide retiree health care for officers after municipal workers voted in 1981 to allow the city to discontinue paying into Social Security.

Officers listed in the suit are footing the legal costs of the suits with their personal money in addition to union funds, POA President Bill Nemec said.

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly at

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