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Midwest Democracy | State audit gives KC Police Department its second-highest rating

The Kansas City Police Department could potentially be spending thousands of dollars more than necessary on incentive programs aimed at encouraging employees to continue their education, according to a state audit released Friday.

But overall, the report by state Auditor Tom Schweich found no major problems with how the department was run and gave it his office’s second-highest rating. This was the first state audit of the department in six years.

“What we found was a well-run department that was willing to cooperate with our audit,” Schweich said. “This was a pretty good audit. We’ve given pretty harsh audits over the past few months.”

The biggest concern in Schweich’s report was a pair of education programs: One reimburses department employees for the cost of college tuition and books, while another offers monthly incentive pay based on degrees earned.

In fiscal years 2010 and 2011, the department paid a total of $782,609 in tuition reimbursements and nearly $1.5 million in college incentive pay.

“We are very supportive of continuing education programs,” Schweich said. “We are not advocating cutting the costs entirely. But in a tough economy we want to see that they are analyzing the programs closely to ensure there is a benefit and that taxpayer dollars are being spent efficiently.”

The department responded in the auditor’s report, saying it “encourages its employees to pursue education during their careers to improve their skills and make them more valuable to the department and the community which they serve.”

Lisa Pelofsky, president of the Board of Police Commissioners, said the department needs officers with a wide range of skill sets.

She said it would be difficult for the state auditor or anyone outside of the department to know what kind of degree or education experience is appropriate to the work they do every day.

“I can certainly understand why the auditor would push back on those programs, but having watched the department the last couple of years I think we need lots of different kind of training to keep our officers up to date,” Pelofsky said.

The program reimburses 75 percent of tuition and $150 per term for books for employees that have been with the department for one year.

Incentive pay bonuses range from $50 a month for an associate degree to $100 a month for officers with a master’s degree, specialist degree or doctorate.

The department does not limit the amount of money one employee can receive or how many years they can continue to get tuition reimbursement, the auditor found.

Schweich said the department also does not require the courses or degrees to be work related, pointing to a deputy chief who received $2,535 in education assistance for a master’s in education. Another officer receives $100 per month of incentive pay for holding a seminary degree.

The report concluded that it is “unclear how a master’s in education and a seminary degree are significant to the duties of these officers.”

Schweich’s report also criticized $122,000 in expenses over a two-year period that “do not appear to be a necessary and prudent use of public funds,” including $58,000 for retirement rings and awards, $43,000 for annual unit dinners and $9,200 for “Chief’s office T-shirts and mugs.”

The department, however, defended the spending as an “investment in our employees.”

“These small tokens are designed to add to the morale and assist in the retention of the department members by showing appreciation for tenure and dedication to the department and community,” the department said in its written response to the auditor’s report. “No change in this policy is anticipated.”

This is not the first time an auditor’s report has criticized this type of spending. In 2004, then-state Auditor Claire McCaskill pointed to gifts, dinners and other giveaways paid for by the department as a questionable use of public funds.

“It is important to have good morale in a Police Department,” Schweich said. “They see awful things every day. But we ask for them to look at what they are spending and see if there are areas to find savings.”

The amount spent on these items is small when compared with the overall police budget, Pelofsky said. But she added that the impact can be enormous.

“The department has a $190 million budget,” she noted. “To spend $60,000 a year to try to build the morale of our officers, I just can’t imagine anyone would consider that a waste of public dollars.”

Schweich also found that the Board of Police Commissioners does not always follow the requirements of the state’s Sunshine Law regarding closed meetings. Specifically, the auditor found that some topics discussed in closed session may not have met the legal threshold.

Pelofsky said any violations were the result of a lack of understanding of the law by board members. “We’re paying close attention to improving our practices, in response to the auditor’s concerns,” she said.

Another item that has shown up in state audits over the years, and again in Schweich’s report, is the department’s take-home vehicle policy.

Officers are allowed to take their cars home if they meet certain criteria. According to the audit, 296 vehicles were assigned to officers on standby or call back status.

The only restriction on personal use of these vehicles, the auditor found, is that officers must keep the vehicle within 50 miles of the city in order to immediately respond to emergencies.

Officers are allowed to use these vehicles for personal use, the report found, and it appears non-employees are riding in these police vehicles.

The department should re-examine its policy to determine the frequency with which these officers are called on to respond to after-hour emergencies, Schweich concluded. The information would help demonstrate whether the benefits outweigh the additional fuel and maintenance costs incurred.

Previous audits have suggested reimbursing officers for use of their own cars, instead of providing department vehicles, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings.

The department agreed that there would be substantial monetary savings through reducing the number of take-home vehicles. But it said saving money is not the only criterion that must be considered.

“The department does not have the luxury of planning for a critical event never to happen. If an incident occurs, the department must be prepared to handle the event no matter how infrequent in nature,” according to the department.

But Police Chief Darryl Forte defended the take-home vehicle policy earlier this year on his blog. “A police car in a neighborhood can go a long way toward preventing crime,” Forte wrote, later adding: “Eventually, I would like all patrol officers to be assigned take-home vehicles.”

Overall, Schweich gave the department and its board of commissioners a “good” rating, citing a willingness to address most of the concerns his report noted.

“The department needs to do everything it can to find savings during this tough economy,” Schweich said. “They’ve demonstrated a willingness to do this, and that goes a long way.”