Union Says Westminster Police Misspending Money

… Funds used for iPads, iPhones for commanders, union alleges …


By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

8:00 PM EST, December 12, 2011

Rank-and-file police officers are accusing the small department in Westminster of misspending money seized from drug suspects by buying iPads and iPhones for top commanders.

The Carroll County Fraternal Order of Police, through a Baltimore law firm it hired, also alleges in a news release that department leaders have pressured officers to work extra-duty shifts at Walmart, sometimes at the expense of patrolling city streets.

“We’re looking for answers,” said Gary McLhinney, a labor negotiator for Schlachman, Belsky and Weiner, a firm that represents police labor unions around the state. “Morale has clearly suffered because of the impression that the bosses are getting all the perks while the rank and file are left cleaning up the mess.”

Westminster’s mayor and police chief denied some of the allegations, such as requiring officers to work overtime at Walmart, and declined to comment on others, saying they wanted to confer with the city attorney before commenting publicly.

Mayor Kevin R. Utz, a retired 28-year veteran of the Maryland State Police, questioned the motive of the union’s law firm, calling it “one of their steps to get the city to agree to collective bargaining,” which the city of Westminster has refused to do. The Carroll County FOP represents the Westminster force on legal and civil matters.

“Clearly, someone disagrees with the manner in which some of the forfeiture funds have been spent,” said Westminster Police Chief Jeffrey Spaulding, declining to confirm, as the law firm alleges, that he and his top commanders — a major and three captains — have iPhones or iPads purchased with funds collected as part of criminal forfeitures.

The mayor refused to say how much money the city has gotten from the asset forfeiture program, or release an annual audit of the programs at participating police agencies in Carroll County.

“We’re not going to release anything from the city of Westminster until we have a chance to talk to our attorney,” Utz said. “Then we’ll be able to respond. I have nothing to hide.”

Expenditures from asset forfeiture programs must follow guidelines from the U.S. Department of Justice. McLhinney said he is not alleging that the spending was illegal but that it was inappropriate. The guidelines, for example, allow money to be spent on computers and communication equipment.

McLhinney said the money shouldn’t be spent on smartphones for commanders but for officers who could use them. For instance, Baltimore police officers have BlackBerrys that can access warrant information. “There are men and women risking their lives to make these seizures, what, so the boss can have an Apple iPhone?” he said.

Much of the money Westminster receives through forfeited assets of drug dealers comes though the Carroll County Drug Task Force, a group of law enforcement agencies that includes the state police, local sheriff’s department and state’s attorney’s office.

The money is administered by a board that decides how much each agency gets, depending on the case. Oversight comes from the board, the Carroll County Bureau of Accounting and an independent audit done every year.

The allegation about Walmart is particularly troubling to the labor union. Businesses typically hire off-duty police officers to work security, operating within the guidelines and restrictions of each agency.

The difference in Westminster, according to McLhinney, is that officers feel they’re being ordered to work the overtime shifts, which are paid by Walmart. He said many shifts are filled voluntarily, but not all, and he said that last year a patrol officer was asked to put in a vacation day to fill a Walmart slot.

“While our officers welcome the extra income,” the union official said, “the issue is whether it’s ethical to take police away from communities and give them to companies that can afford to pay for it.”

Spaulding called the allegation about Walmart “incorrect” and said that no officer is ordered or pressured to work overtime. He said the police force and the store have a written agreement, but he would not provide a copy. Walmart officials did not return calls for comment.

“If we can’t staff through voluntary overtime, we’ll call and tell them we can’t work the detail,” Spaulding said.

The Westminster Police Department has 45 sworn members, about 25 in patrol, protecting a city with roughly 18,500 residents. Officers answered a little more than 12,000 calls and made 942 arrests last year.

In 2010, there was one reported homicide, 15 robberies, 84 assaults and 77 burglaries, all down from the previous year. But through October this year, statistics show that burglaries and car thefts are up over 2010, with crime in other categories slightly down or about the same.

Spaulding declined to comment on staffing levels, but McLhinney said the department is at least five patrol officers under strength.


Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun

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