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OFFICERS WHO CARE FOR POLICE DOGS AT HOME DEMAND BACK OVERTIME PAY

They work together and live together, and every police officer can recall when his canine partner saved his life.

But those same officers now are demanding overtime pay for the time they spend caring for the dogs at home.

Lawmakers say they're barking up the wrong tree.

"This is outrageous," said Niagara Council Member Robert Quintana, a Buffalo police officer on a leave of absence. "These officers knew the responsibility they were taking on."

The officers, who already receive a $7.50 daily stipend and a city-owned car to drive back and forth to work, have sued the city in federal court.

They want overtime pay for the time they spend feeding, grooming and caring for the dogs on their own time.

"They have to do this every day of the year," said W. James Schwan, a lawyer for the officers. "Because they take care of the dogs on their own time, they're entitled to compensation."

Schwan says the officers' claim centers on a federal law requiring overtime pay for anyone who works more than 40 hours a week.

The suit, filed in 1995, has brought about a tentative settlement. City lawyers are recommending that 21 former and current canine officers receive $250,000 in back pay.

Council members don't buy it.

"This is one of the greediest money grabs I've ever seen," said Fillmore Council Member David Franczyk. "I refuse to vote for this."

Franczyk and others view the officers' lawsuit as the latest attempt to bleed a poor city of more money.

The settlement amounts to about a half-hour of overtime for each day the officers took care of the dogs at home. Some officers were demanding as much as 2 1/2 hours a day of overtime as part of the lawsuit.

"The officers are being more than reasonable," said Schwan. "They're settling for far, far less than what they deserve."

The city, regardless of the stipend and car it provides canine officers, is accused of violating the Fair Labor Standards Act, the federal law requiring overtime after 40 hours of work.

If the city does not settle, Schwan said, the case will go to trial and the ultimate result could be more costly -- a court award that could more than double the city's liability.

Council members seem willing to take the risk.

"The real issue is what these officers can squeeze out of the City of Buffalo," said Ellicott Council Member Barbara Miller-Williams, another police officer on a leave of absence.

If the Council accepts the settlement, Schwan said, it would end all future claims against the city. It also would result in future compensation of $8.21 a day, or about $3,000 a year, plus a city-owned car to transport the dogs.

Schwan thinks the Council is losing sight of what these dogs contribute to crime fighting in the city.

They patrol streets, help control crowds, sniff out explosives and narcotics and are often used to find suspects who are hiding in a building.

"These dogs are highly trained and highly sensitive," he said. "A lot of work goes into their care and feeding."

Council members will meet Tuesday to decide if the benefits justify the cost.

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