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Friday, May 24, 2024

The trials and tribulations of finding out what Cape Fear cops are paid

A public records request submitted for law enforcement employee pay and overtime was submitted by WHQR through the city clerk for the Wilmington Police Department on Feb. 17. As of press, no response to the request has been received. (Port City Daily/File)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Local government finances are public record, but getting specifics can be easier said than done.

For Sunshine Week — a national initiative for news organizations to highlight issues of open government — WECT, WHQR and Port City Daily teamed up to submit identical public record requests. They went out to local governments containing six of the largest law enforcement agencies in the tri-county area. 

The goal was to find out salaries of law enforcement employees and how much they made in overtime during the period of Jan. 1, 2020 to the present, and what information agencies keep on gang-related incidents. The requests were directed to the sheriff’s offices in New Hanover, Brunswick, and Pender counties, as well as the police departments of Wilmington, Leland, and Burgaw.

Pender County Sheriff’s Office

Sergeant Chester Ward with the Pender County Sheriff’s Office shared salary and overtime records with WECT 25 days after the original request, with the data sorted by employee number and position, without employee names. Salary and overtime amounts were separated, but each total was combined over the last three years, rather than a year-by-year breakdown.

Sheriff’s office employees were paid a total of more than $3 million in overtime during the time frame requested, accounting for nearly 16% of the total amount paid including base salary.

WECT reached back out to Ward and Pender County staff Wednesday to ask for the overtime and salary data to be separated by year. Deputy Finance Officer Angela Miller responded, saying it will take a few days to provide those details.

Ward said the sheriff’s office did not investigate any gang-related incidents from between 2020 and the present.

Burgaw Police Department

Burgaw Police Chief Jim Hock provided a database of gang-related incidents and overtime pay records 18 days after WECT’s request for records.

The gang-related incidents were sorted by date, time, location, violation, victim’s name, investigation status, and suspect information. The victim’s name was redacted for cases in which a suspect had not been arrested.

“This is for the protection of the victims from retaliation of suspects when the victim did not want to file charges or refused to cooperate with prosecution,” said Hock.

Officers investigated two gang-related assaults in 2020, none in 2021, and three in 2022. Arrests were made in both 2020 incidents, but only once incident remains an active investigation.

The town of Burgaw paid full-time police department staff a total of $35,784.98 in overtime in 2020, accounting for close to 4.5% of total pay. Full-time staff members were paid $33,810.15 in overtime pay in 2021, accounting for 4% of total pay. The amount of overtime pay increased by nearly 34% in 2022, totaling $45,197.80.

Hock, listed as both police chief and assistant town manager in 2022, was paid almost $6,200 in overtime, in addition to his base salary of $102,136.17.

Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office

When Port City Daily requested the records, the county furnished details 10 days after submission. The request started with the county communications office, which directed PCD to sheriff’s office Public Information Officer Emily Flax. 

Flax responded the office does not track gang-related incidents and then redirected PCD to the county finance department for the pay portion of the request.

There was a misunderstanding that the data should be broken up by year; the first dataset provided by the county described the total amount every officer was paid for the past three years.

Ultimately, the county furnished all the requested information by Tuesday afternoon.

In FY22 the office’s salary rates totaled $8.64 million and climbed to $10.29 million in FY23.

Overtime expenses increased from $1.75 million in FY21 to $2.26 million in FY22. However, the 2021 figure declined from 2020, when the office spent $2 million on overtime. Up to this point in 2023, the office has spent $1.65 million on overtime.

Sheriff John Ingram collected no overtime pay in the previous fiscal year. Some regular deputies collected more than $10,000 in overtime pay, while a handful were paid $1,000 or less, or no overtime at all. First Sgt. Bryan Stephenson collected the most overtime in the office at $21,416.45 that year.

Leland Police Department

PCD reached out to the town’s communication’s office, which funneled the request through the town clerk, who handles public records requests for the Leland Police Department. The town responded within two days of PCD’s request and recorded no gang-related incidents. 

However, upon inspecting the records, the pay and salaries for the department were included but not totals of overtime pay. Without overtime, it is impossible to determine how much the town has actually spent on the Leland Police Department.

When asked to include records of overtime pay, Town Clerk Sabrena Reinhardt emailed:

“We provided the salary of requested employees that is public record per N.C.G.S. § 160A-168. It is the Town’s position that the salary that is subject to disclosure under this statute does not include over time paid.”

Port City Daily reached out to legal counsel with the North Carolina Press Association to confirm that records of pay are, broadly, public record. The association lawyer noted the same statute cited by the town includes this definition for “salary” deemed available upon public request:

(b1)  For the purposes of this subsection, the term “salary” includes pay, benefits, incentives, bonuses, and deferred and all other forms of compensation paid by the employing entity.

After informing the town the statute says all compensation is public record, Leland staff attorney Corrie Evans replied its position is the statute does not include “speculative future overtime pay.” 

The request was for records of overtime pay dating back to the beginning of 2020, not a request to speculate on future overtime pay.

Evans also provided overtime hours worked by officers dating back to fiscal year 2020 in the same message, even though that was not part of the request. 

The town logged a significant increase in overtime hours between FY21 and FY22, jumping from 1,224.75 hours to 1760.25. As of this week, Leland Police Department has nearly passed the 2021 total for the current fiscal year, logging 1,201.75 hours.

Upon asking a third time for overtime pay, the town said it would provide an update by the end of this week. The request was first made Feb. 13.

Leland responded on Monday, March 20, with information regarding the total amount spent on overtime pay. In fiscal year 2020 to 2021, it was $41,906 and increased to $61,851 in 2021 to 2022. Year to date, the number is $38,643.

New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office

The Sheriff’s Office produced the records within a week, although there were some IT issues preventing delivery at first. NHCSO provided total overtime pay for each of the three years, but not total pay. NHCSO’s total budget is available as part of the county’s overall budget online.

Overtime pay dropped from $1,000,722 to $862,224 between 2019 and 2020 and rose again to $1,130,945. Those numbers represent roughly 1.5% to 2% of NHCSO’s overall budget for each year.

According to spokesperson Lt. Jerry Brewer, overtime does ebb and flow over the years. Currently, Brewer said over 90% of the overtime is coming from the detention center, with other divisions running generally within budget. Staffing is the major issue, Brewer said. It takes a roughly 30-person squad to run the jail, and Brewer said some squads are down as many as eight or nine people, leading to what he called “mandatory overtime” at the detention center.

NHCSO aso produced basic numbers of gang-related incidents: 29 in 2020, 25 in 2021, and 8 in 2022. These do not include incidents handled by the Wilmington Police Department, though NHCSO deputies do serve on some task forces inside the city’s corporate limits.

Wilmington Police Department

All public records requests for the Wilmington Police Department are handled by the Wilmington City Clerk’s office, which acknowledged receipt of WHQR’s request and began processing it on Feb. 17. The next week, the clerk’s office said it was waiting for staff to respond. As of press, no response to the request has been received. 

On Thursday, March 16 — the day after this article went to press — a city spokesperson submitted the following statement to WHQR:

“Record requests that are received by the City Clerk are transmitted to city department staff via email. In this situation, that email, which was sent by the Clerk’s office on February 17, was inadvertently overlooked by the staff member to whom it was sent. That staff member was made aware of the oversight today and is working currently on gathering the information, which is estimated to be completed and sent to the clerk’s office within the next business day.”

By Friday morning, the city fulfilled the records request.

For the financial part of the request, it provided detailed data on salaries and overtime, which showed a steady increase in overtime payments from $1.3 million in 2020 to $1.5 million in 2021 and over $2 million in 2022.

So far this year, the city has paid out roughly $448,000. The city averaged around $32 million each year for total salary payments.

The city also provided some of the most detailed gang-related incident information — time, date, location, type of crime, and the status of the case. The data included roughly 300 incidents in 2020, 200 in 2021, 180 in 2022, and about 15 so far this year.

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