“I was not going 48 in a 25,” the woman interjects. “I’m one of the best drivers I know.”
Multnomah County Circuit Judge Jerry Hodson quiets her down, and Byrd finishes his testimony. The woman gives her side, and Hodson isn’t convinced. He hands her $400 in fines.
“If I get a parking ticket,” she says, storming out of the courtroom, “you’re paying for it.”
Byrd turns to the judge with a bemused smile. But the guilty driver isn’t entirely wrong. She may be stuck with a fine, but taxpayers are the ones paying for a lot of it.
For his time in court, Byrd got three hours of overtime, even though he spent only 45 minutes there for this hearing and another that preceded it.
The city’s share of the fines for both cases was $175. Byrd’s overtime costs: $165.18—not counting benefits.
Taxpayers often lose money when Portland police go to traffic court. That’s because the police union’s contract contains an extraordinary clause that guarantees officers four hours of overtime for showing up in court—even if they appear for only a few minutes. (Byrd got only three hours because his shift started later that day.)
That adds up to a lot of overtime paid when officers are not really working. In all, Portland cops last year clocked 8,501 hours in court for an estimated total of $473,000—a rate of $55.72 an hour.
“It’s pretty amazing,” says Gail Shibley, chief of staff to Mayor Charlie Hales. “It’s something the mayor flagged very early on as we started looking at the Police Bureau budget back in January.”
Despite concerns in the mayor’s office—and Hales’ talk about holding police more accountable—the city didn’t seek a basic change in state law this year that would dramatically cut down time officers spend in traffic court.
And it’s not clear the city will make automatic overtime a bargaining issue in the upcoming police contract.
Commissioner Dan Saltzman—who helped lead a subcommittee on public safety overtime this spring—says getting rid of the four-hour minimum has never been a bargaining issue for the city.
“It’s not on anybody’s agenda for this contract,” he says. “If we get something on the minimum, we’d have to give them something else—you know how that goes.”
Still, Saltzman says officers getting paid overtime for work they don’t do is “galling.”
TJ Browning, former chairwoman of the disbanded Police Bureau Advisory Committee, says Hales should take a hard line on traffic court overtime.
She says former Mayor Sam Adams disregarded the committee’s warnings in 2010 that such overtime should be a “primary concern.”
Portland firefighters also have a four-hour overtime minimum, but Browning says she couldn’t find another American city with so generous a deal for police.
“Our overtime is so egregious, when I asked officers in Chicago and Rockford, Ill., about it, they were handing me their cards and asking me about transfer policies,” Browning says. “Those officers couldn’t believe it.”
President Daryl Turner of the Portland Police Association says the rule has been in place for years and is a way of making officers whole for job duties that butt into their lives.
“It’s time away from your family, time away from your sleep,” Turner says. “All the things other people get to do in their personal time, we don’t get to do because we’re mandated to be in court.”
Commissioner Steve Novick calls such a premium for overtime “rather bizarre.”
“We should take a survey of people who go to traffic court and ask them how much time they have to take off of work,” he says.
Police spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson says the bureau is “in a bind” because there are only two traffic court dockets each weekday.
If an officer works nights, swing shifts or weekends, Simpson says, it often means he or she must come in on overtime.
“There’s no real financial incentive for the Police Bureau to write more traffic tickets,” Simpson says. “But the community’s expectation is, you’re going to make those traffic stops.”
Yet if Oregon’s laws were like those in Washington, Portland officers wouldn’t have to be in court as often as they are now.
Washington state law allows officers to testify by affidavit for traffic infractions—usually freeing them from attending court. “They don’t have to come in on their days off,” says Kim Kapp, spokeswoman for the Vancouver Police Department.
“Police union representatives are very quick to point to Seattle as a comparable city when we talk about pay,” Shibley says. “This may be one exception to their interest in strict comparisons between Washington and Oregon.”
But city officials didn’t pursue changing state law during this legislative session. Shibley says it’s something that may be on the agenda next year.
Browning doesn’t understand why there’s a delay in acting.
“It’s ridiculous that the taxpayers are paying [four hours of overtime] for 10 minutes of work,” Browning says. “It’s the biggest thing that blows our budget.”