Transit police are limited to patrolling buses and trains but they surpass other law enforcement officers in one respect -- overtime pay.
Transit police rely more on overtime than do the biggest police and sheriff's departments in the Twin Cities. One transit officer made $50,264 in overtime alone over a year's time. Five others topped $30,000 in a year.
Now the transit force is coming under scrutiny. While not mentioning overtime specifically, a consultant recently cautioned against "inefficient use of resources," and said the department sometimes "lacks the staff to respond appropriately to calls."
Newly appointed transit chief John Harrington on Friday defended the pay practices, saying overtime is used mostly to handle special events like Vikings and Twins games.
"As opposed to the cost of hiring and training, overtime is a more cost-effective way of meeting our obligations and responding to unplanned needs in the community," Harrington said.
An expert on labor economics cautioned that an organization can always reach the point where overtime not only is a heavy expense but a drag on productivity as workers feel the effects of so many long workweeks.
"At some point when you're paying time-and-a-half and productivity is going down, then it's probably better to hire a fresh body," said Morris Kleiner, a professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
Higher percentage of pay
The transit police patrol bus routes and ride buses, the Hiawatha light-rail line and Northstar commuter trains. Their jurisdiction is restricted to transit property and equipment, employees and passengers, but other police departments can ask them for assistance.
Transit police and their supervisors got a bigger share of their pay from overtime last year than did St. Paul and Minneapolis police or sheriff's deputies in Hennepin and Ramsey counties. Overtime amounted to 9 percent of transit police pay in 2011 -- about average for the past three years.
By comparison, overtime represented 5 percent of pay for St. Paul police last year, 7 percent for deputies in Hennepin County and 8 percent in Ramsey County.
"We've been fighting overtime like crazy over the last couple of years," said Sgt. William Palmer, a spokesman for the Minneapolis police, where OT was less than 4 percent of total pay last year. "Our budget isn't what it used to be, and we need to make do the best we can and as efficiently as we can."
But Harrington said the transit police spent less than they budgeted for overtime in 2011.
"We are doing a great job of managing overtime," he said.
Some transit officers complain they are treated more like security guards than law enforcement officers. While they have powers to investigate crimes and make arrests, they also are required to check fares on light-rail trains.
But there is no lack of stature when it comes to overtime.
Officer Russell Erdahl, 62, made $103,587 in overtime in the four years before he left the force in 2011, including $50,264 in 2007 -- tops in recent years. He could not be reached for comment.
Seventeen transit cops -- one in seven -- each made more than $10,000 in OT in 2011. Lt. Gordon Greenwaldt made $21,888, bringing his total salary to $102,045, higher than the former police chief.
Patrol officer Steven Schoephoerster made $20,838 in overtime last year and has consistently been among top overtime earners. His $34,956 of overtime in 2007 brought his total pay that year to $111,777.
He said Friday he couldn't recall why his overtime was so high that year, when three other officers and a supervisor also made more than $30,000 in overtime.
"I just work," he said while out on patrol. "Whatever I can do to make ends meet, that's what I do."
"The shifts are available," he added. "Some people don't want to work anything extra besides their regular scheduled shifts. I'm willing to take on the extra hours."
Schoephoerster said he works buses and trains and checks fares but doesn't conduct investigations.
"I've had a great career here," Schoephoerster said. "It's been very good to me."
Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504