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Suits Say Police Understaffed

August 5, 2000

DEFIANCE, Ohio (AP) _ Police officer Steve Gebhart puts in an average of 12 overtime hours a week, a workload he says leaves him tired and worried about his safety.

Gebhart and 19 fellow officers have filed a lawsuit against the Defiance Police Department, contending the department is breaking federal labor law by not granting them time off for working overtime. Officers in at least two dozen cities around the nation have filed similar lawsuits.

``Excessive overtime fatigues an officer,″ said Rich Roberts, spokesman for the International Union of Police Associations. ``And if ever there was a profession that you need to be sharp at, it’s police work.″

The union, which represents 80,000 active duty officers, is leading overtime-related lawsuits in Cleveland; Milwaukee; Raleigh, N.C.; Santa Ana Calif.; and Brookline, Mass. The Defiance lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.

City Attorney David Williams said the department is willing to compensate the officers for overtime but can’t afford to offer compensatory time off because of staffing problems.

``If we could give it to them we’d love to, but there’s a public safety issue there,″ he said.

Williams thinks a U.S. Supreme Court decision supports the city’s position. The court ruled 6-3 in May that state and local governments can control when their employees take compensatory time off if no pre-existing labor agreement says otherwise.

However, union general counsel Mike Leibig says that case and the lawsuits filed against police departments are vastly different. He said the Supreme Court case dealt with whether a sheriff could order an employee to take comp time and dictate when it be taken.

So far, there haven’t been any court rulings in the lawsuits similar to those filed in Defiance. But several departments have either revised their overtime policies or made payments to officers, Leibig said.

In February, Los Angeles agreed to a $40 million settlement with police officers who said the city delayed payment, shortchanged some officers and tried to dictate when they took comp time.

Defiance has grown considerably in Gebhart’s 20 years on the force, but the town of 20,000 people, about 50 miles southwest of Toledo, hasn’t lost its small-town atmosphere.

Police still make an effort to answer every call _ from unlocking car doors when the keys are locked inside to checking on homes whose owners are on vacation.

But Gebhart said working long hours with his police dog, Eagle, has put a strain on his own family life.

``I spend more time with the dog than I do with my wife,″ he said.


On the Net:

International Union of Police: http://www.iupa.org

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