Unfilled positions causing high UConn police overtime

Nearly half of the University of Connecticut’s full-time police positions are currently vacant –- a situation that is forcing some officers to work weeks without a day off and costing the school about $68,000 a month in overtime.

“What ends up happening is you force officers to work and they are more likely to get worn down,” said UConn Chief Barbara O’Connor. “We are running at minimum staffing numbers more often than not.”

Of the 30 full-time patrol positions, eight are vacant and five are on light duty and not working full-time because of injuries. The police department also employs several detectives.

“It’s like Murphy’s law. When it goes bad, it’s really bad,” said O’Connor.

And it’s a situation that is largely out of her control, as the authority to test candidates for these positions has rested solely with another state agency.

While state lawmakers last month passed a law that gives UConn complete autonomy in its hiring process, labor concerns have stalled implementation while it is worked out.

The problem with having the Department of Administrative Services hosting these tests, O’Connor says, is that years pass between the tests being administered. This leaves her which a stale list of 2,400 candidates, many of whom have since found a job or people who passed the test but are seeking employment at other state agencies.

“This is a public safety issue,” said Sen. Beth Bye, the co-chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee. “The chief has to cover the campus. That’s 520 hours a week that people may have to pick up in overtime.”

So far this fiscal year, one officer’s overtime has already topped $31,496 with two months in the year remaining. At least four other officers of the 13 full-time patrol staff stationed in Storrs have received $25,000 in overtime already this year. The average starting salary for an officer is $50,000 (before benefits), UConn reports.

The delay is filling these positions is not unique to UConn.

Elsa Nunez, the president of Eastern Connecticut State University, told legislators recently that it can take her two years to fill a vacancy.

“And in between I have to pay overtime,” she said.

But the Department of Administrative Services insists the holdup does not rest with them.

“We do not control their hiring,” Commissioner Donald DeFronzo said.

Asked about the concern that too many people on the list are not interested in working for UConn or have since found a job, the commissioner said parsing out the tests for UConn is not ideal.

“Do you want to fragment the test? Our feeling is probably not. Most states have some type of centralized process like this,” he said. “We all have vacancies we can’t fill [in state agencies]. It might have nothing to do with us.”

But O’Connor said the university police chiefs she talks to in other states have this authority.

“We want to be able to recruit and control the [whole] process. If I have an opening in January, I want to have that position filled by March,” she said.

But union concerns have crept into her proposed solution. Bye said that because the officers would be left with two separate hiring criteria –- one decided by UConn and another by DAS -– concerns have propped up.

“You could be creating two classes of officers,” she said. “We are coming up with a process now that respects those collective bargaining issues.”

And in the end, it comes down to reducing the overtime costs, which are calculated in the officers’ pensions. Overtime at the Storrs campus alone has ranged from $794,500 to $904,942 a year over the last five years.

“We want more officers, not the overtime,” Bye said.