A few weeks after Hurricane Matthew last fall, a Bluffton police officer anonymously accused a handful of fellow officers of getting drunk while hanging out the night before the storm, when the officers were on the clock and getting paid overtime.
Although the chief at the time said he did not believe the officers had been drunk, only one officer appears to have been asked about the incident, and no internal affairs investigation was ever conducted.
Questions have since arisen about whether the officers even knew they were being paid overtime while hanging out and watching a sports game that night, and whether they were appropriately informed about the emergency management protocol.
It also remains unclear how much, if anything, the officers had been drinking that night, though in an interview Thursday, current Police Chief Joseph Manning acknowledged that if the officers had consumed any alcohol, he was sure they had used good judgment when doing so.
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In an internal police survey obtained by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette, an anonymous complaint was made to former Police Chief Joey Reynolds in the weeks following the hurricane, saying “It was rumored” that certain officers, including a supervisor, “got drunk” on Oct. 6, less than two days before the Category 2 storm hit Beaufort County in early morning hours of Oct. 8.
The officers at that point had been getting overtime pay since Oct. 4 and would, when all was said and done, receive 195 hours of overtime pay — whether they were actively working or had downtime — for the entire eight days the town was under emergency protocol.
Manning said Reynolds told him he’d spoken to one of the involved officers about the alleged incident.
Reynolds, Manning said, did not believe that the officers had been intoxicated and assumed the anonymous complaint had been made by a disgruntled employee, who also accused the chief of showing continuing favoritism to this particular group of officers. The officers, the complaint alleged, were members of the criminal investigations division, the special investigations unit or were on the strategic response team.
Reynolds opted not to open an internal investigation, and Manning said he too believed the officers were not drunk that night. But when asked whether the officers had been drinking at all — even just one or two beers — while being paid overtime, Manning said he didn’t know because he had not questioned any of the officers involved.
“I can’t speak for Chief Reynolds,” Manning said. “All I can say was that he looked at what was written on the survey, and it was deemed unsubstantiated.”
Manning said two officers stayed at a colleague’s house Thursday night, the day before Matthew arrived, and that three officers watched a sports game together.
Manning repeatedly referred to the officers as being “off duty,” despite the fact they were also “on standby” and being paid overtime 24 hours a day per emergency management protocol. They had been paid overtime since then-Gov. Nikki Haley declared a state of emergency two days prior, according to Bluffton town policy provided by town manager Marc Orlando.
“If they (the officers) were off duty, did we tell them no, they could not drink alcohol?” Manning said. “No, I don’t remember Chief Reynolds writing that order up. So if they did (drink alcohol), (they would have done so) using good judgment.”
Manning said nobody showed up to work visibly intoxicated or hungover at the 6 a.m. Friday meeting, when mandatory recall went into effect. Manning said that, because conditions were so hectic the week before Matthew, he didn’t know if police officers had been notified that the 24-hour emergency management overtime pay had begun Tuesday afternoon or if any officers had been explicitly told not to drink when on standby.
Bluffton stayed under emergency management from Oct. 4 to Oct. 12.
The Bluffton Police Department accrued an overtime bill of $337,008, a disproportionately high bill when compared to other police departments in the county and considering the town’s relatively low level of estimated structural damage during the hurricane.
Most of the department’s 50 employees were paid the nearly 200 hours in overtime. Reynolds made $16,216 in overtime during the storm, and Manning made $12,343.