South Florida police officers used to return to the station at the end of a shift to turn in their paperwork and patrol cars. But technology has revolutionized a cop's workday, and those laptops, radios and take-home cruisers make it possible to go AWOL or duck out of work early.
"The truth is, it's easy," said Miami police Maj. Jorge Colina, who oversees internal affairs for the area's biggest municipal police force. "You're hoping you don't get dispatched to a call ... But you could get a head start and be up on the expressway out of the city when they tell you, 'OK, have a good night.'"
SunPass toll records analyzed by the Sun Sentinel found cops from Plantation to Miami cutting out before their shifts ended, sometimes signing off via the radio from locales nowhere near their jurisdiction.
But modern technology can be a double-edged sword, and police departments are now using it to slip a tighter virtual leash onto their workforces.
This year, a GPS tracker in a squad car, plus a close look at cellphone and SunPass toll records, ended the career of Broward Sheriff's Lt. Eric Wright. Internal affairs investigators found Wright moonlighting during the hours he was supposed to be supervising patrol squads in Weston, leaving early on some days, or not bothering to show up at all.
Broward Sheriff's Deputy Erik Knutsen got into trouble when investigators checked police radio records and found he was claiming to respond to service calls while he was actually at the Booby Trap, a Pompano Beach strip joint, an internal investigation found. Knutsen was fired after a GPS tracker secretly planted in his cruiser revealed he was spending up to one-quarter of his work time at nude clubs outside his patrol zone.
Long-time South Florida cops remember starting and ending their days at police headquarters, the way they did on the popular '80s TV show "Hill Street Blues."
"We didn't have take-home cars, so I needed to bring my car back to the station, and turn that car in so the next guy can jump in and go out on the street," Colina recalled. "That alone was already a mechanism, not intended for that, but nonetheless it was a mechanism for you to see that officer."
Computers and electronic report-writing also have helped eliminate face-to-face accountability. "Before you had to come in. A sergeant would look at the report and if a correction had to be made, he would give you back that copy," Colina said.
Even the radios once used by police had less powerful signals, veteran cops recalled, making it more difficult to pretend you were somewhere you weren't.
"You could tell if someone wasn't in the city because you could barely hear him," Colina said. "We've lost a lot of those checks and balances that existed just because of how things ran."
The changes have brought benefits, police administrators say, keeping officers on the streets longer.
Before, "with each shift you'd lose at least an hour with the time it took to load up your car and take off," said Jeffrey Goldman, assistant chief in Delray Beach.
But some departments now are returning to the old ways to improve accountability.
Davie's police chief instituted in-person "debriefings" at the end of shifts about two years ago in part to keep officers from leaving town before they should.
"People were abusing it, going home an hour early, just hanging out [until the shift ended] and then turning the radio off," said one Davie officer who spoke on the condition he not be identified by name.
In neighboring Plantation, police commanders discovered this year from SunPass records, brought to their attention by the Sun Sentinel, that some of their officers were heading home early. Since then, they've been keeping closer tabs on their whereabouts. More supervisors have been given access to data from the GPS devices in police cruisers and check regularly to see where they are.
"It was never our purpose to use [GPS] as Big Brother," said Erik Funderburk, Plantation's deputy chief. "Now with this, we needed to."
Plantation also started periodically calling officers back to the station at the end of their workday.
"We've instituted calling people in randomly, an entire shift," Funderburk said. Over the summer, "there was a period where every single shift came in and waited in the Briefing Room to emphasize accountability."
Law enforcement, of course, is hardly the only occupation where some workers may be tempted to cheat the clock. "There is probably not a workplace on this planet where some employee has not cut out before their shift was over," noted Broward Sheriff's Office spokesman Jim Leljedal.
Sheriff's deputies in Broward and Palm Beach counties do not report back to their stations when they go off duty. Both agencies say leaving early is dealt with seriously.
"There are always those who are going to be irresponsible in their behavior, but it's up to us to identify it," said Michael Gauger, chief deputy at the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office. "If they're stealing time, that goes to internal affairs. That's a terminable offense."
Sunrise Police Sgt. Rodney Hailey said supervisors there opened an internal investigation into one of their officers, Ryan Reardon, after a Sun Sentinel analysis of SunPass records showed him leaving the city before his shift ended on half the days he worked over a 10-month period.
Miami police are investigating eight of their officers based on the Sun Sentinel's review of their toll records, Colina said. One of them, Officer Tika Jones, habitually came to work late, arriving as much as three hours after the start of her shift, according to her SunPass records and time cards.
Neither Jones nor Reardon responded to messages seeking comment.
Staking out their own
The vast majority of cops are dedicated and stay on the job, ready to handle any emergency or back up their fellow officer, said Colina. But the temptation to slide out is there.
On late shifts and during slow periods, some officers may cut out early knowing they can keep abreast of any breaking crimes or emergencies on the radio, said Mark Overton, Miami Beach's deputy police chief.
"If something big happens, they can turn around and come back," he said.
Miami Beach considered reinstating an end-of-the-shift roll call last year after one of their officers who had been partying in a bar on duty ran his ATV into a couple on the beach. The incident revealed a widespread practice of the city's officers taking undocumented time off and going home.
Department brass decided against the roll call because it would take cops off the street. Officers there still sign off over the radio, but now must give their location. It's an honor system, "but you never know who's watching," Overton said.
One recent morning, the deputy chief was. Overton camped out on a causeway to see if any Miami Beach officers left the island city early -- he said none did.
The department's chief, Raymond Martinez, also checks up personally on his officers, especially when he sees them outside the city's borders.
"Just the other day at 7 a.m., I saw a Miami Beach car and I got the car number, called in and said, 'Who's this officer?'" the chief said. "It was a day shift officer. At 7 a.m., they should be here, so I came in and checked and sure enough she had taken the first hour and a half of the shift off for whatever reason."
Miami's internal affairs investigators conduct stakeouts to see if their officers are where they should be.
"A lot of the officers recognize the liability in saying you're here when you're not," Colina said. "They know something could happen."
Miami Beach is looking to technology to improve accountability, installing GPS devices in patrol cars.
"Once that happens," Overton said, "it's going to be very easy for us to run the reports and see where our officers are 24/7."
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