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Most days, the doors to the witness rooms of the D.C. Superior Court building are open, perhaps affording passers-by a view of an extremely bored cop or two. It’s part of the job: When an officer receives an email from the Court Appearance Notification System, that officer is required to show.
Documents sent to the D.C. Council by the Metropolitan Police Department show that in fiscal year 2008, officers spent 247,424 hours of overtime in court. In 2009, they racked up 247,911 hours of overtime. Year-to-date numbers submitted for fiscal year 2010 compiled in June put court-related police overtime hours at 128,900—which amounts to more than a full day sitting in court for every sworn officer on the force, months before the fiscal year ended.
Why so much time? MPD has little power to prevent government lawyers from summoning cops, as long as the proper form is filled out. To avoid having cops abandon other duties to appear in court, fulfilling the obligation usually means overtime. In the past, some officers have been accused of cheating the system by milking the time or signing in for fake cases. (MPD later cracked down on that practice.)
Recently, some police sources have said they’re spending less time doing a legitimate court-related duty, witness conferences. They believe the overtime costs are why. The conferences help prosecutors make their case. But police higher-ups don’t want to dole out the dollars, the cops say, so they’ve been pressuring prosecutors to cut back on the meetings. The conferences allow government attorneys to pick the brains of officers who have knowledge of a crime or arrest before going to trial.
MPD says the worried officers are mistaken: Witness conferences haven’t been reduced.”The numbers of witness conferences remain consistent this year,” says police spokesperson Gwen Crump. But Crump didn’t respond to a request to provide numbers.
The U.S. Attorney’s office agrees that the “conferences are important in preparing witnesses for court proceedings and getting cases ready for trial,” but declines to comment on whether the number of conferences “remain consistent” because the conferences are part of the “investigative process.”
But police union head Kris Baumann asserts there’s something wrong. “There’s been a marked decrease in witness conferences,” says Baumann. “The department is either parsing words or is unaware of the decrease in the number of officers attending the conferences.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery