Detroit cops upset over plan to install time clocks

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit police officers are bristling at a plan that will require them to punch time clocks at the beginning and end of their shifts.

The demand is part of the city’s reboot of what officials say was an antiquated payroll system. At the recommendation of auditing firm Ernst & Young during the city’s bankruptcy proceedings, time clocks have been installed in most city buildings, including police commands.

The proposed policy for police — which is is expected to kick off in March — has some cops upset.

“Everybody at work is questioning this,” Detroit police officer Jeffry Sklar said.

“There are a lot of people in the department who start at odd times. It just doesn’t make sense to have police officers punching in time clocks,” Sklar said.

Michigan Association of Police Chiefs President Robert Stevenson called the plan “strange.”

“I’ve never heard of any police departments in Michigan using time clocks,” he said. “I can’t imagine what efficiencies they hope to gain out of this.”

Critics say the plan isn’t feasible, in part since many officers don’t work set shifts and are often called to crime scenes from home. Police and city officials acknowledge there may be bugs to work out, but say supervisors may override the time clocks for employees who are called to work during off hours.

Although police department time clocks are unusual, they are found in cities such as Atlanta and Dayton, Ohio.

A Detroit police internal affairs investigation into overtime abuse had nothing to do with the decision to implement time clocks, said Detroit human resources director Denise Starr.

“We were operating with a 40-year-old payroll system,” she said. “Everything was being done manually, and there were several payroll errors as a result. It’s all about getting people paid properly. Band-Aid after Band-Aid was put on the old system, and it just doesn’t work any more.”

Starr, who said she could not immediately say how much it will cost to implement the new system, said some kinks still need to be worked out.

“A lot of details are still up in the air, and that’s why all these questions are out there,” she said. “We’re not there yet. We need to outline what the work rules will be for every employee.”

Detroit Homicide Sgt. Matthew Gnatek questioned the logistics of punching a time clock while working after hours.

“A lot of times, I’ll go straight from my house to a crime scene,” Gnatek said. “Now, if I get called in the middle of the night, am I going to have to stop at my office to punch in first? It’s kind of ridiculous.”

The clocks use thumb recognition software. It will take only a second for officers to swipe in, said Assistant Police Chief James White, who drafted a policy covering their use.

“The policy covers the use of the clocks and phone calls necessary to override the system in case someone works overtime, or is called in earlier,” he said.

“Our main concern is making sure our members get paid for the work they do. Under no circumstances will someone come in early or stay late, and not get paid for it.”

The proposed policy change will go to the Board of Police Commissioners for review, White said. The board in December regained its powers over policy issues; if it rejects the proposal, a new policy would have to be drafted.

Sgt. Brandon Cole, a member of the 11th Precinct Special Operations team, believes the city will lose money.

“We work a lot of time off the clock without being paid,” he said. “So it’s going to be real interesting when it actually gets implemented for (Special) Ops. Paying us to the minute will actually cost the city more money in overtime and takes that flexibility away. The other caveat is that officers will leave exactly at eight hours because of no flexibility.”

In Atlanta, police spokeswoman Elizabeth Espy said the department hasn’t experienced major problems with time clocks. “Some employees can clock in with their phones,” she said.

Starr said Detroit may allow officers who work off-hours to punch in via phone. “That’s something we’ll look into,” she said.

Miami police installed time clocks in the early 1990s, but the program didn’t last, retired Miami officer William Scarola said.

“It wasn’t feasible,” the 35-year veteran said. “When there was roll call, you’d have people standing in line for a half hour to punch in. Or, if people were checking in before their shift started, the department didn’t want to pay them overtime. So you had 50 people just standing around before their shifts even started.

“I don’t think (time clocks) lasted more than a few months. There were all sorts of problems: You had people headed in to work stopping at emergency scenes on the way, and a supervisor would have to update the clock. Every night there were four to five guys who had to have their supervisor take care of their time because something happened.”

In Detroit, the police department and Department of Transportation are the last city agencies to have clocks installed, Starr said.

“It’s an automated cloud system,” she said. “We haven’t done training for police yet. We’re going to meet with the department and employees, to tell them how to punch in, record vacation and comp time.”

Gnatek said many officers take offense at being required to swipe their thumbs to punch in.

“We’re asked to do one of the most important jobs in society, and you can’t trust me to come and go without swiping my thumb? That’s ludicrous.”

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