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By Tim Eberly
Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA - It's bonus time for a large group of Atlanta police officers.
The city is on the verge of paying $7.5 million to more than 600 current or former police officers --- a settlement for those who filed a federal lawsuit in 2004, alleging they weren't paid for working overtime.
"They're pretty happy, of course," said Atlanta police Sgt. Scott Kreher, president of the Atlanta police union that pushed for the suit. "I think in these economic times, they're certainly going to be able to help their families and themselves."
The officers consider the settlement a victory. The city is not admitting liability or wrongdoing. A federal court judge formally approved the deal in late September.
The city has until mid-November to pay the officers, Kreher said. Minus about $2.4 million for attorneys' fees, the plaintiffs are getting $5.1 million total.
The payout doesn't worsen the city's current financial crisis because officials already had put aside the money when both sides agreed to the settlement amount in 2007, Atlanta City Attorney Beth Chandler said.
The city is satisfied with the resolution because it could have faced greater financial exposure defending the lawsuit, she said. "We felt like the settlement was in the best interests of the city," she said.
Spread among 632 officers, investigators and sergeants --- some of them no longer with the department --- the average payout is $8,000 per person, said Mitchell D. Benjamin, one of the officers' attorneys.
But dozens of officers will collect between $30,000 and $80,000, Benjamin said.
"That's a pretty good recovery," said Benjamin, a labor and employment attorney in Decatur. "We think it worked out really well."
As the settlement was slow getting approved, scores of antsy officers phoned Benjamin, asking when they'd be getting paid. Some, he said, had wrecked cars and needed to buy new ones; some need money to pay their taxes; one had medical bills from a sick child, and another was getting a divorce.
"Any day now," Benjamin would tell them.
Now that their payday is near, Benjamin has nothing but good news.
"That's the best thing to say: 'I have money for you,' " he said.
Kevin Knapp, an eight-year Atlanta police officer, is expecting a check for $12,500.
"It's almost going to turn out to be a little bit of a bonus," said Knapp, 32.
But it's bittersweet because officers still are not taking home as much money as they would like in their paychecks due to frozen pay raises and rising health care costs, he said.
Knapp is going to use his settlement money to pay off credit card bills, he said.
"It's going to be awesome to knock that out," he said.
The city and police reached a verbal settlement in March 2007, but a federal court judge didn't sign off on it until late September.
The lawsuit contended that the city violated the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and claimed officers were owed overtime money dating back to 2001. Nearly 2,000 current or former officers were eligible to join the suit, but less than one-third signed on.
The city now has an electronic timekeeping system in place to track hours worked by officers.

Wire Service
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