Chattanooga eyes night court to shrink police OT

Chattanooga eyes night court to shrink police OT

May 24th, 2009 by Monica Mercer in News

The 1980s TV sitcom "Night Court" depicted courtroom antics well past regular business hours. Now some local officials wonder whether the a similar court might help save thousands of dollars in police overtime.

Holding General Sessions Court in the middle of the night is not, of course, an option, County Commissioner John Allen Brooks said.

But creating a late-afternoon docket to accommodate second- and third-shift police officers should be considered, he said.

"It's an expensive proposition" to have officers sitting in court at 8:30 a.m. every day while racking up overtime hours, Mr. Brooks said.

"(A night court) strikes me as something that should be considered when we're not in a position to give raises and we're going through tough economic times," he said.

Mr. Brooks said he is working with the Chattanooga City Council to determine whether a 3 p.m. General Sessions docket would help solve the overtime problem.

City spokesman Richard Beeland said discussions are still in their infancy. He said the administration has not conducted studies to see if money actually could be saved.

"There needs to be some alleviation with the police department. We do know (overtime in court) is an issue," Mr. Beeland said.

Police overtime pay is close to $1 million a year, Chattanooga Police Chief Freeman Cooper said, adding that much of that is due to officers testifying in court cases.

Second-shift officers who work 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. make the most arrests, but hearings and bench trials in General Sessions Court begin at 8:30 a.m., records show.

City officers in 2008 spent 9,700 overtime hours in court, costing taxpayers about $300,000, Chief Cooper said.

"This is an issue that the police department cannot change," Chief Cooper said. "This is something that every mayor's administration on behalf of the police department has taken to the sessions court judges. It's totally up to them."

Sessions Judges Clarence Shattuck and Christie Mahn Sell said the costs and logistics of creating a night court would likely offset any savings to the police department for overtime.

"If it wouldn't be an added expense, then I'd be all for it," Judge Sell said.

She noted that several departments would have to be involved, from the district attorney and public defender to the court clerks, and that security would be required as well.

"I think at the end of the day, if night court is meant to offset police overtime, the expenses would be so exorbitant that it wouldn't even be a comparison."

Judge Sell said all five General Sessions judges are mindful of police officers who are off duty and waiting to testify in a case. She said they try to deal with those cases first.

But delays inevitably take place, Judge Shattuck said.

"We'd wind up with people being in the courthouse at 9 at night," he said.

And despite the overtime issue, Judge Shattuck said police officers' presence in court is part of their duties in the justice system.

"They're not just out on the streets. They have an obligation to be witnesses in cases," Judge Shattuck said.