Building Overtime

Off-duty police officers making time and a half are swarming over construction sites, handing out tickets. Only in S.F.

"I remember one thing Pat said that I'll never get out of my mind," contractor Kieran Buckley recalls, sporting a wan smile while he shakes his head. "He said, 'The hardest thing for me to do is giving you guys tickets next to going out and telling somebody a family member has been killed or died.'" Yet spotting gaping trenches or blocked sidewalks didn't seem to induce a state akin to mourning in Tobin at all. In fact, it was quite the opposite: He lit up like a birdwatcher rewarded with a glimpse of a nesting blue heron.

After leaving the plumbers and roofers, Tobin confirmed that he'd usually cite them for their obvious violations of city rules and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Today, however, he'd make a "gentlemen's agreement" with their bosses and let everyone off the hook if they attended SPOT's monthly safety seminar. And yet, five minutes later, he reconsidered his display of benevolence. He phoned Officer Mike Palada, dictated the address, and told him to issue citations. "You don't change a culture with admonishments," Tobin says nonchalantly.

Instead, Tobin has attempted "paradigm change" among the building trades with the costly tickets, and lots of them. Through the program's first three years, it handed out 34 tickets for every admonishment; in 2006, it issued 1,051 tickets and only six admonishments. And while a $65 ticket for double-parking your Ford F-150 may not get contractors' attention, a $622.81 citation for double-parking in a construction zone will. Tobin admits that the fine — which the MTA claims is set by ordinance and the California Superior Court — is gratuitously high. That, he argues, is the way to alter builders' behavior. Also, he eschews the term "double-parking" in favor of "inappropriate temporary traffic control work zone."

S.F. police officers earned $4.93 million in overtime pay on construction sites last year. Builders say hiring them is a great way to avoid tickets.
Jake Poehls
S.F. police officers earned $4.93 million in overtime pay on construction sites last year. Builders say hiring them is a great way to avoid tickets.
Jake Poehls

The origins of Tobin's controversial program can be traced back to when former Mayor Willie Brown grew impatient while sitting in the back of a limo caught in construction-induced gridlock. This led to the "Unclog the Streets" program, which restricted construction on major city thoroughfares to limited hours of the day during certain months of the year. Working through the Department of Public Works, Tobin and other police were sent to "shoo along" contractors blocking the streets.

By 2004, however, traffic engineers — and Tobin — had grown weary of simply asking builders to obey the law. "We weren't getting the level of enforcement we thought was appropriate," says Brian Dusseault, a traffic engineer attached to SPOT since the beginning. The Department of Parking and Traffic wrested SPOT away from Public Works and began paying police on overtime to nab builders for violating long-unenforced statues on San Francisco's books. Dusseault says the DPT now pays police on SPOT detail an average total of $50,000 a month. The off-duty officers often earn up to $80 or more an hour in overtime pay.

Tobin matter-of-factly states that if there were no violations, there'd be no SPOT. Dusseault adds that he has never set a ticket quota. Yet the reality of any self-funded program stocked by overtime employees is evident. If police issued fewer and fewer tickets, there'd be less and less justification to send them out to earn time and a half. And ticketing is not going down — extrapolating SPOT's 2008 midyear ticket and revenue counts, the program is on pace to far exceed its citations and income from 2006.

While Dusseault says SPOT is unique in focusing on "the entire work zone," it remains unclear what the program does that other city agencies couldn't. "It's a duplication of effort, definitely," says Ed Sweeney, a senior inspector with the Department of Building Inspection. When one of the DPW's 27 field inspectors was asked what SPOT officers can do on-site that he cannot, he answered, "Nothing, really. ... Our job is to teach the contractor how to avoid any kind of ticketing. The other thing [SPOT] is almost detrimental. It comes to nitpicking."

Regardless of its merits as a safety or education program, SPOT has inarguably provided robust second incomes for police officers already earning yearly salaries of $90,000 to well into six figures. According to the city controller's office, Tobin himself earned $261,080 in overtime pay from SPOT between fiscal 2004-05 and 07-08, including $74,824 last year — in addition to his regular yearly salary of $108,760 as a motorcycle officer. When, in recent months, contractors began complaining to elected officials and media queries began coming Tobin's way — "You surfaced," he told SF Weekly with a grin — he abruptly renounced his overtime pay. He explained that he didn't want anyone arguing that he was gung-ho about his program only because it was rewarding him so richly. But Tobin doesn't intend to go without overtime compensation for long. He plans on forgoing it only "for a few more months," until complaints die down.

During SF Weekly's ride-along with Tobin, he largely steered clear of SOMA and downtown neighborhoods where, in the words of a city department head critical of SPOT, "blocking the sidewalk has been raised to an art form." At the outset, however, Tobin lamented that a massive SOMA project by several of the city's largest construction companies was illegally blocking the sidewalks on entire blocks while workers clumsily redirected cars around a boom crane — but did not call an officer to issue citations or admonishments. He did, however, tell three men across the street loading cardboard boxes into a pickup truck to stop blocking the driveway.

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