South Florida police officers used to return to the station at the end of a shift to turn in their paperwork and patrol cars. But technology has revolutionized a cop's workday, and those laptops, radios and take-home cruisers make it possible to go AWOL or duck out of work early.
"The truth is, it's easy," said Miami police Maj. Jorge Colina, who oversees internal affairs for the area's biggest municipal police force. "You're hoping you don't get dispatched to a call ... But you could get a head start and be up on the expressway out of the city when they tell you, 'OK, have a good night.'"
SunPass toll records analyzed by the Sun Sentinel found cops from Plantation to Miami cutting out before their shifts ended, sometimes signing off via the radio from locales nowhere near their jurisdiction.
But modern technology can be a double-edged sword, and police departments are now using it to slip a tighter virtual leash onto their workforces.
This year, a GPS tracker in a squad car, plus a close look at cellphone and SunPass toll records, ended the career of Broward Sheriff's Lt. Eric Wright. Internal affairs investigators found Wright moonlighting during the hours he was supposed to be supervising patrol squads in Weston, leaving early on some days, or not bothering to show up at all.
Broward Sheriff's Deputy Erik Knutsen got into trouble when investigators checked police radio records and found he was claiming to respond to service calls while he was actually at the Booby Trap, a Pompano Beach strip joint, an internal investigation found. Knutsen was fired after a GPS tracker secretly planted in his cruiser revealed he was spending up to one-quarter of his work time at nude clubs outside his patrol zone.
Long-time South Florida cops remember starting and ending their days at police headquarters, the way they did on the popular '80s TV show "Hill Street Blues."
"We didn't have take-home cars, so I needed to bring my car back to the station, and turn that car in so the next guy can jump in and go out on the street," Colina recalled. "That alone was already a mechanism, not intended for that, but nonetheless it was a mechanism for you to see that officer."
Computers and electronic report-writing also have helped eliminate face-to-face accountability. "Before you had to come in. A sergeant would look at the report and if a correction had to be made, he would give you back that copy," Colina said.
Even the radios once used by police had less powerful signals, veteran cops recalled, making it more difficult to pretend you were somewhere you weren't.
"You could tell if someone wasn't in the city because you could barely hear him," Colina said. "We've lost a lot of those checks and balances that existed just because of how things ran."
The changes have brought benefits, police administrators say, keeping officers on the streets longer.
Before, "with each shift you'd lose at least an hour with the time it took to load up your car and take off," said Jeffrey Goldman, assistant chief in Delray Beach.
But some departments now are returning to the old ways to improve accountability.
Davie's police chief instituted in-person "debriefings" at the end of shifts about two years go in part to keep officers from leaving town before they should.
"People were abusing it, going home an hour early, just hanging out [until the shift ended] and then turning the radio off," said one Davie officer who spoke on the condition he not be identified by name.
In neighboring Plantation, police commanders discovered this year from SunPass records, brought to their attention by the Sun Sentinel, that some of their officers were heading home early. Since then, they've been keeping closer tabs on their whereabouts. More supervisors have been given access to data from the GPS devices in police cruisers and check regularly to see where they are.
"It was never our purpose to use [GPS] as Big Brother," said Erik Funderburk, Plantation's deputy chief. "Now with this, we needed to."
Plantation also started periodically calling officers back to the station at the end of their workday.
"We've instituted calling people in randomly, an entire shift," Funderburk said. Over the summer, "there was a period where every single shift came in and waited in the Briefing Room to emphasize accountability."
Law enforcement, of course, is hardly the only occupation where some workers may be tempted to cheat the clock. "There is probably not a workplace on this planet where some employee has not cut out before their shift was over," noted Broward Sheriff's Office spokesman Jim Leljedal.
Sheriff's deputies in Broward and Palm Beach counties do not report back to their stations when they go off duty. Both agencies say leaving early is dealt with seriously.
"We've instituted calling people in randomly, an entire shift," Funderburk said. Over the summer, "there was a period where every single shift came in and waited in the Briefing Room to emphasize