The Sun Sentinel's "Short Shifted" investigation has prompted South Florida elected leaders to take action to make sure cops can no longer leave their cities early and still collect a full day's pay.
One mayor went so far as to say it may be time to rethink take-home cars — a prized perk for police officers.
Angry residents complained that some cops have gotten away with too much for too long, and change is overdue.
A Davie councilman said he'll ask for weekly GPS reports on the locations of police cruisers in his town so he can personally make sure officers are where they should be.
The mayor of Pembroke Pines said he'll examine a practice that lets cops save their breaks and go home early.
In Plantation, where some officers were leaving the city before their shifts ended almost every day, the mayor ordered the police chief to evaluate the cost and benefits of take-home cars. A majority of the City Council said they would consider changes.
The response follows a Sun Sentinel investigative series last week that found cops from Plantation to Miami skipping out of work early, an abuse that some residents said would get most people fired.
"This would not be tolerated in other professions," said Davie resident Shari Shine, a former teacher who works with special needs children. "If you are sworn to uphold the law, then you'd better be abiding by the law. Show up on time, leave on time and do what we're paying you to do."
The Sun Sentinel reviewed police payroll and SunPass toll records and found 39 officers from six South Florida agencies left their cities before their shifts ended or after working less than a full day at least 20 percent of the time from late 2010 through early 2012.
In Plantation, toll records showed 11 officers outside the city's borders when they were scheduled for duty. They included a father and son who had made it to a toll booth in Palm Beach County — 30 miles away — by the time their shift ended on most of their workdays.
Plantation Mayor Diane Veltri Bendekovic said the short-shifting officers "put a blemish on our entire department." But the mayor said she was satisfied with the steps taken by police brass after they learned of abuses from the Sun Sentinel earlier this year. Police commanders there are keeping tabs on officers through GPS and randomly calling squads back to the station at the end of a shift.
At a City Council meeting Wednesday, Plantation Police Chief Howard Harrison said he could not explain many of the early departures.
"Am I saying all those incidents were legitimate? No," he said. "I'm as disappointed as each and every one of you are, but I can assure you we've taken measures to correct this in the future."
In Davie, the Sun Sentinel found a $120,000-a-year police major regularly leaving the town after less than an eight-hour day. He announced his retirement two days after the newspaper shared its findings with a city councilman, and Mayor Judy Paul said she is confident the problem was not more widespread.
"What we have now is some built-in safeguards because we have the GPS systems on all the cars," the mayor said. ''We always know where they are."
Davie Councilman Bryan Caletka said he will ask the chief to provide him with weekly reports of the GPS data so he can check on officers' whereabouts.
In Pembroke Pines, Mayor Frank Ortis said he would examine a practice that allows officers to take their breaks at the end of a shift and go home early — the reason police leaders gave for two officers tracked at toll booths outside the city before their shifts ended.
"I'm certainly going to look at it," the mayor said. "Everybody should work their full shift."
The police chief said last week he found no abuses and that supervisors also allow cops to leave early in return for working extra hours, a practice Ortis said he supports because it saves the city on overtime costs.
So far, no punishment has been handed down to officers. Internal investigations are under way in Sunrise and Miami, and Plantation cops received an informal "counseling" by supervisors.
"C'mon, that's ridiculous," said Plantation resident Jeffrey Tieger. "I used to own a business. If someone put in false hours, they would be fired. I would cut off any pension or benefits they had. This should even be worse because it's public money."
End take-home cars?
Fed-up residents, including some former cops, say take-home cars have led to too many abuses by officers, some of whom commute 100 miles a day in their cruisers and don't pay a cent.
Earlier this year, the Sun Sentinel found widespread off-duty speeding by cops in patrol cars racing to and from work at speeds of 90 to 120 mph. Police leaders said take-home cars also made it possible for cheating officers to leave work early since they no longer have to return to the station at the end of a shift.
"Get rid of take-home cars," said Bob Kiley, a retired sergeant with the former Pompano Beach Police Department. "That would take care of this right away."
The cars are a prized perk to officers, and politicians in many cities are reluctant to even consider changes. They tout the benefits of marked units in neighborhoods as a crime deterrent, despite Sun Sentinel findings that three-quarters of South Florida officers with take-home vehicles live outside their jurisdictions.
"I'm a solid believer that take-home cars really work," Pines' Mayor Ortis said.
"I like the idea just from visibility," said Davie Councilman Caletka. "I don't personally feel there's a gross negligence or misuse."
But Plantation may have no choice as a result of the abuses the Sun Sentinel uncovered, the mayor said.
"I'd be stupid to say this wasn't the catalyst to re-evaluate the pros and cons of the take-home cars," said Veltri Bendekovic. "I'm not saying we're going to take them away. I just think we need to go back to the table and take a look."
The mayor said she expects the police chief's cost-benefit report on take-home cars by the end of the year.
Councilmen Ron Jacobs and Pete Tingom said they would consider changes to the policy. "I think we should talk about it, yes," Tingom said.
In tough financial times, the cars are an additional strain on the budget, Jacobs said, and cops going home early or speeding off-duty "adds another dimension."
Said Jacobs: "I think we need to look at it — definitely."