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Understaffed precincts and political favoritism have lowered the morale of the Police Department's patrol force, prompting officers to call in sick and injured more frequently, officers say.

The understaffing has made scheduling vacations or personal days difficult, so some officers resort to calling in sick or injured to obtain days off, officials said.

Those are the first rank-and-file responses to several recent reports about the extent and impact of police sick time. Officers describe a department virtually at war with itself.

Police Benevolent Association officials said police favored by Mayor Griffin's allies rarely are punished for misconduct. Those with ties to the mayor or the police administration also receive sought-after assignments with special units, while poorly equipped precinct officers work in crumbling station houses, some patrol officers claimed.

"It's almost like there's two police departments -- there's downtown and a patrol force," said one Michigan Station officer, who, like others, asked that his name not be used. "If you look at the instances of police being brought up on charges, it's mostly the patrol people. And working conditions, too. Everything here is like it was 50 years ago."

"When you're short of manpower and put in for time off, you're refused," said an officer who has been in the department five years.

In numerous cases, officers also are
forced to work at night and then testify in a police-related court case during the day before returning for another nightly shift, one West Ferry Station lieutenant said.

"If we had a high-morale department, this sick time would be cut," Inspector Thomas Kinsella said. "You could improve the effectiveness of this department 80 percent if you could improve morale."

The mayor said Thursday the city is working with the police union to end short turnarounds on shifts.

"We know it's killing them, and we're trying to work on it," Griffin said. "But the union wants something back."

On an average day, more than 80 officers or about 25 percent of the 330 who patrol the city's precincts in a 24-hour period are off sick or injured, city records show. Two years ago, 20 or 30 were off on a typical day.

The large amount of sick and injury time strains understaffed precincts where officers normally spend their time answering emergencies, leaving little time for patrolling and detering crime, residents and police said.

To help, the mayor argues that low-crime areas could be patrolled in one-officer cars and the City Charter's minimum requirement of 44 officers per precinct should be scrapped.

"The worst thing the Council ever did was to mandate 44 officers to each precinct," the mayor said in an interview Thursday. "I'm from South Buffalo. People may yell and scream, but they don't need 44 police. We don't have the crime they do in other areas."

Ellicott Council Member James Pitts said he will ask for public hearings into the problem.

Commissioner Ralph V. Degenhart and other administrators blamed the problem on a liberal-sick leave policy.

"We're getting them falling into police cars, falling and slipping into police cars. This is the famous one they used," said Inspector James Mahoney, head of the Internal Affairs Division that probes allegations of police misconduct. "Some get hurt lifting typewriters. I don't know why they have to move the typewriters."

Officers and Police Benevolent Association officials say some veteran precinct officers have been especially upset because of the creation of the Maryland Street detail -- to combat drug sales -- and other elite units.

"They say they're street-wise and hard-hitting policemen," one officer said. "What makes them more street-wise and hard-hitting than anybody else?"

"It's not just the morale, it's the assignments. They're upset with the favoritism that's taken place," Pitts said.

Members of the 15-member Maryland detail, created in early August to crackdown on drug dealing on the lower West Side and subsequently used in other neighborhoods, often earn coveted overtime pay, union officials said.

"There is favoritism in the department, like with this Maryland Street detail," one Michigan Station officer explained. "They're getting all this overtime."

The mayor denied Thursday that politics has entered into police promotions.

"People are promoted because they are doing a good job for the city, not because they are doing a good job for Jim Griffin," he said.

Police administrators and city officials said more officers are calling in sick or injured because they are not required to be confined to their homes if they take off work. In addition, officers hired after 1984 do not need to present supervisors with a doctor's note if they are off sick or injured for three or fewer days, administrators said.

City officials need to negotiate with the police union to come up with a plan that would limit the high number of officers who are calling in sick or injured, officials said.

Degenhart said he approves of giving officers three days' pay for not taking any sick days after one year, while Lt. Robert P. Meegan, president of the Police Benevolent Association, said the union would like officers to receive five days' pay.

Assistant Corporation Counsel Stanley Sliwa said the city as an employer has an "inherent" right to demand officers get a doctor's note to explain why they have to miss work.

"We are paying you, therefore we have the right to inquire as to the utilization of that leave," Sliwa said.

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