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Councilors struggle to rein in police overtime

Overtime pay continues to climb amid pandemic

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Councilors struggle to rein in police overtime
Officers kept watch as a group of protesters gathered opposite the Boston Police Department headquarters on Columbus Avenue in Roxbury April 24. BANNER PHOTO

Last year, when former Mayor Martin Walsh pledged to cut police overtime by 20%, police reform activists pointed out that the department routinely overspends its overtime budget.

True to form, by February, the department blew past the $48 million the Walsh administration claimed it would spend on overtime in the 2021 fiscal year, which ends June 30. In the last year, more than 30 officers earned over $300,000, based mostly on overtime and paid details, the Boston Globe reported last week.

During a March 12 City Council hearing, District 4 Councilor Andrea Campbell said the city’s police department spending is unsustainable.

“This was almost a test to realize the commitment made by the administration to reduce the overtime budget by $12 million, and we’ve realized zero of that, even with special events and court appearances going down,” she said.

As for why the police department is burning through the city’s cash, paying for overtime in a year when First Night, parades, festivals, court hearings and other mainstays of police overtime have been canceled, the answer is elusive.

In a series of City Council hearings over the last year on police overtime, Boston Police Department officials gave a variety of answers on why overtime spending is increasing, pointing to the number of officers on sick leave and what they describe as staffing shortages. Police union officials and some white city councilors have advocated increasing the number of officers on the force to reduce overtime.

Other city councilors and police department critics are calling attention to police union contracts and a series of obscure department practices as drivers of an overtime budget they say is unnecessarily high.

“Why aren’t officers’ schedules arranged such that court visits, annual parades and longer shifts are included within normal shift scheduling, avoiding costly time-and-a-half overtime pay?” reads a report released last week by the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Could it be the case that the ‘minimum staffing’ standards that the Department establishes are inflated, requiring more officers than necessary to be on the street, and thus requiring more costly replacement personnel overtime than reasonably required?”

A structural problem?

There are more than 2,000 sworn officers in the BPD. Officers are either assigned to one of the department’s 11 districts or to special citywide units such as Homicide, the Youth Violence Strike Force, the Bicycle Unit and the Motorcycle Unit.

Police officials say the demand for overtime is driven by a need for officers in the 11 district stations. Because an average of 12% of the city’s officers were on injured or sick leave last year — part of a surge in officers on leave that began well before the COVID pandemic — there are vacancies in district stations. When district captains say they need more officers, officers from special units earn overtime by filling in. Officers assigned to the district can also earn overtime by working extended tours — putting in hours beyond their standard eight-hour shift.

Yet when asked how staffing levels in the districts are set, police officials described an informal process during which police captains make decisions on how much staffing is needed in each district.

“It’s a very informal discussion that the Bureau of Field Services has with the district commanders,” Captain James Hasson said in a hearing in November of last year.

Hasson said the only way to understand the process is to be present at the conversation. “I’ve never been in that conversation,” he admitted.

While Hasson said the department uses data on crime statistics to determine the staffing levels, under questioning from councilors, he would not describe how they arrived at the numbers.

District 5 Councilor Ricardo Arroyo in February filed a 17F request for minutes from 2019 and 2020 meetings where captains discuss staffing levels in the districts. Police officials denied the request, citing public safety concerns, an argument Arroyo said is specious.

“That’s not an acceptable reason,” he told the Banner. “I’m not asking how many officers they need tomorrow. I’m asking how you determined how many you needed in 2019.”

Arroyo argues that without knowing how police set staffing levels, it’s impossible to understand what’s really driving the need for overtime.

“There’s nothing they’ve given us to explain why they need more officers instead of just permanently re-assigning officers from special units to districts,” he said. “I don’t know how anyone could say we need more officers without knowing what formula they use for staffing.”

In making the case for increased staffing, The Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association produced a video laying out the argument that the number of Bostonians has increased and the number of 911 calls has as well, while the number of officers on the force has dropped 20% in the last three decades.

But crime statistics paint a different picture. The crime rate has declined yearly from more than 1,300 per 100,000 population in 2006 to 622 per 100,000 in 2018. While there was an uptick in shootings in 2020, with 45 fatalities, there were just 28 fatal shootings a year before in 2019.

In spite of the declining crime rate, the department’s payroll has gone up from $290 million in 2011 to $416 million in 2020.

Union officials have long maintained that that officers are forced to work overtime and would rather spend time with their families, but a majority of overtime shifts officers work are voluntary.

When asked during a March 12 hearing how much of the overtime worked was involuntary, Boston Police Deputy Chief Financial Officer Lisa O’Brien admitted that 82,000 of the 677,000 hours worked — just 12% — were forced or involuntary overtime.

Contract negotiations

While city councilors are attempting to get a handle on police spending, much of what they’re trying to rein in is in the hands of the mayor. The council can vote up or down on the city’s budget, but the mayor alone has the power to negotiate the contracts with the police unions that set the policies around pay and overtime.

Court appearance overtime, which declined sharply last year as courts suspended sessions during the stay-at-home order, can be lucrative for officers. As the Banner reported last year, officers earn a minimum of four hours of overtime for appearances as short as the few minutes it takes to drop paperwork off at a courthouse.

Council Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Kenzie Bok noted that police are increasingly collecting pay for hours they’re not in court.

“Two-thirds of court overtime hours are hours not worked,” she noted in the March 12 hearing. “That ratio has been going up in the wrong way in the last few years.”

While Bok and her fellow councilors have been questioning various aspects of the union contracts, overtime has remained in the news, and not in a positive way. As if the 30 officers pulling in more than $300,000 weren’t enough, last week a former Boston Police officer pled guilty to charges he committed more than $20,000 worth of overtime fraud while working shifts at the department’s Hyde Park evidence warehouse.

In all, nine officers were found to have embezzled more than $200,000 between 2016 and 2019 by submitting falsified overtime slips and leaving work early.

Against a steady drumbeat of criticism and increased scrutiny, police union officials will soon return to the bargaining table with the city to negotiate contracts that expire this year. Whoever negotiates a deal — the administration of acting Mayor Kim Janey or the administration of a new mayor in November — they will negotiate against a backdrop of shifting public opinion on policing in Boston.

Campbell, who, like Janey, is running for mayor, says the city must pursue policy changes around overtime, police discipline and other reforms through its negotiations with the police unions.

“It’s really important we push for greater transparency and accountability,” she said. “Policy changes, coupled with changes to the contract, are essential.”