Buffalo police officers are calling in sick and injured much more frequently this year than ever before, forcing their colleagues to pick up the slack and costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime pay.
Eighty or more officers -- nearly 25 percent of the 330 officers who patrol from the city's precinct houses in a 24-hour period -- call in sick or injured on an average day, city records show.
Two years ago, 20 to 30 called in sick on a typical day.
Department administrators argue that some officers call in sick because they dislike assignments or want days off.
Union officials insist that the officers are not abusing sick time, blaming the absences on shoddy clothing and equipment.
"These guys are getting sick out there," said Lt. Robert P. Meegan, president of the Police Benevolent Association.
"They're running around out there. They don't have any coats, any jackets," Meegan said.
"That's ridiculous," said Commissioner Ralph V. Degenhart. "Every single officer has now gotten six shirts, three pairs of pants."
Coats are available for those who need them, he added, while noting the strain the sick time is causing in the department.
"We have some nights where no one comes in, where we had to call people in on overtime," he said.
From 1985 to 1989, the department recorded a 42 percent increase in the annual number of eight-hour shifts lost because officers called in sick or injured, from 12,014 to 17,043, records showed.
The number of shifts in which officers called in injured alone rose from 2,934 in 1985 to 6,773 last year, a 130 percent jump.
The sick time also is costing taxpayers, as overtime money is allocated to pay the salaries of officers called in to replace the sick or injured officers.
From July 1 until Nov. 20 of this year, $272,000 was spent on overtime for patrol officers and supervisors, up from $110,000 over the same period stretching from July 1 to Nov. 20 of last year, Degenhart said.
The commissioner said the city put $400,000 in the 1990-91 budget for overtime for precinct officers. But now he believes that $983,000 will be needed for the year unless something is done to curb the absences.
Degenhart and other supervisors said this week that officers have resorted to claiming they are injured while working inside the station houses.
"They'll fall down the stairs. They'll slip on grease in the (police) garage," scoffed Inspector James Mahoney, head of the Internal Affairs Division, which investigates allegations of police misconduct. "We had a couple of them walk into walls. . . . He should get a stupidity award."
"There's one guy we're investigating who's only worked four weekends in a year," Mahoney added. "He's got a history of calling in sick every Friday and Saturday night."
Mahoney said younger officers are responsible for most of the abuse.
"The most ridiculous one got burned on a hot plate," said Degenhart. "Is that injured on duty?"
Some officers call in sick or injured, Degenhart said, because there is no realistic way of checking the validity of every claim. As the result of a grievance that was settled in 1989, officers who call in sick are not required to remain at home.
And because of the contract the department has with the union, officers hired after 1984 do not need to present supervisors with a doctor's note if they are off sick or injured for fewer than three days.