Accustomed to juggling dozens of cases, attending court and working long hours, homicide detectives in the District have long viewed overtime as a well-deserved pay benefit.
All that changed Oct. 1, when a special provision allowing detectives to work up to about 48 hours of overtime a month on certain cases was canceled as part of a broad cost-cutting order by Police Chief Isaac Fulwood Jr. to curtail overtime hours for all officers.
The change has led to considerable grumbling in the ranks, especially within the 50-member homicide unit because detectives there say it is forcing them to make a difficult choice: work for compensatory time, which is considered a poor replacement; work without getting paid, which some say they are doing; or not work overtime at all, a less-than-politic choice.
The result, several detectives said recently, is that older homicide cases -- those that are weeks or months old -- already are not getting the time or attention they deserve. Because the rate of homicides this year is exceeding that of last year, several said, they are hard-pressed during their regular shifts to meet the demands of just the day-to-day cases.
"We're spending so much more time in court, so we're spending less and less time on the street," said one investigator who is juggling several active cases. Overtime "gave us a chance to go out on the streets. What they're doing now is putting a price on a human life."
The homicide unit's closure rate -- the number of cases that are solved -- is now at 60 percent, slightly higher than last year.
Eighteen months ago, in an effort to solve outstanding homicide cases, the force began allowing detectives to work up to 24 overtime hours every two-week pay period. Now, under Fulwood's new order, overtime, for which they were paid time and a half, can be paid only in compensatory time -- an hour and a half for every hour worked.
Fulwood has been adamant on the overtime issue. The department has added 1,200 officers this year alone, an unprecedented increase that has brought the staffing level to 4,700. With so many officers, including several new detectives, Fulwood has argued, the department must cut overtime and deploy its people more effectively.
"What we are doing is making better use of our human resources," Lt. Reginald Smith, the department's spokesman, said of the overtime policy. "At some point, everybody is going to have to tighten up their belt buckle."
But detectives say the system simply doesn't work in homicide. It is difficult to take time off because of the workload, and, under a department policy, each investigator is given a 450-hour limit on compensatory time. Whatever time is put in beyond the limit is converted into overtime, something the department will not readily allow under the new restrictions.
Investigators still get paid overtime for court appearances, and that is a significant addition to their base salary, which begins at about $35,000. But the loss of up to 24 overtime hours per pay period amounts to a significant cut in pay, up to $13,500 for the lowest-paid detective.
"The bottom line is, if a guy is going to stay all these extra hours away from his family, he wants to be reimbursed for it," said one veteran investigator. "The only way the police wages can stay competitive is with overtime."
Smith said he is confident that the new policy will not diminish the homicide unit's effectiveness.
And to those who complain about not being paid for work rendered, Smith said: "I would like to think that we don't have people on board today who are only working because there's overtime."