Syracuse, N.Y. — Syracuse auditor Nader Maroun will investigate a Syracuse Police Department policy that paid patrol officers to stay home and not work on some shifts.
Maroun confirmed the audit to Syracuse.com | The Post-Standard on Friday.
The decision comes one week after members of the Syracuse Common Council’s finance committee sent a letter to Maroun asking for the investigation.
The policy was first reported on by Syracuse.com | The Post-Standard two weeks ago: Syracuse taxpayers paid police officers to stay home while city faced financial disaster.
“All government employees are paid with public funds and the public need to know that sound decisions are accompanying the disbursement of those monies,” Maroun said in an email to councilors about their request for the investigation.
Maroun told councilors in the email this week he would report back on how the department handled the decision to pay officers for time on call and make recommendations for how the department could have improved transparency.
For weeks, Maroun has failed to respond to repeated requests for comment from Syracuse.com | The Post-Standard. He did respond Friday to confirm he would do the audit.
City taxpayers paid officers for as many as 800 unworked shifts that cost up to $226,750 over two months, according to estimates by Syracuse.com (City officials declined to provide an estimate of the cost.) Mayor Ben Walsh was informed of the policy, according to Police Chief Kenton Buckner.
At the same time, the police department paid more than $850,000 in overtime, documents show.
While the policy was in place, more than 100 other city employees were furloughed because of the budget crisis caused by the coronavirus shutdown. Walsh recently announced more than $18 million more in budget cuts and 400 more furloughs because of the pandemic.
None of the furloughs have included police officers. Sworn officers can’t be furloughed because of the department’s union contract, department officials said.
Police department officials have said the policy was designed to try to stop the spread of the coronavirus. It was possible to send officers home because call volume dropped 18% year over year.
Walsh declined through a spokesman to be interviewed about the policy. His office provided a statement supporting the chief’s decision, saying Buckner “made smart decisions to limit the risk of exposure to Covid-19.”
The practice likely provided “minimal benefit” in stopping the spread of the coronavirus, according to Brooks Gump, a Syracuse University public health professor.
The policy drew ire from councilors, prompting them to request the investigation.
Councilor Joseph Carni said the policy raised questions. Councilor Pat Hogan said the department paying for officers to be sent home at the same time that it paid officers overtime was “galling.”
From April 1 through May 27, officers in the police department’s patrol division were sent home and allowed to be on call for a shift once every two work weeks. Officers were still paid for those shifts whether they worked or not.
Police department officials told Syracuse.com | The Post-Standard they were unable to say how many shifts officers were sent home, how many times officers were called back or how much city taxpayers paid for unworked shifts.
“These records were not kept,” said Deputy Chief Richard Trudell in an email. He heads the department’s patrol division.
Trudell did say he could remember at least a “couple” times officers were called back to work.
City lawmakers were not notified of the change in how the money was spent. Current city Budget Director and then-Councilor Tim Rudd had panned the policy for its secretiveness and its wastefulness.
Councilors from the finance committee — including Hogan, Carni and Khalid Bey — requested the investigation.