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Councilors probe past efforts at police overtime reform

Police brass have implemented zero reforms

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 probe past efforts at police overtime reform
Boston Police Sgt. Kevin McGoldrick.

Under city law, the Boston Police Department is required to provide the mayor and the City Council with a weekly report on the deployment of sworn officers by district or shift, along with a breakdown of overtime awarded to officers in each district.

Yet, when asked during a hearing Wednesday by District 5 City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, BPD officials could not say the last time such a report was prepared or forwarded to city officials.

The disclosure of the requirement — and the department’s noncompliance — comes as the Council is in the midst of efforts to rein in the department’s overtime costs, which have risen steadily over the years even as crime has gone down.

Police officials have cited a number of factors driving overtime over the past year, including absences due to COVID infections and exposure, protests and the presidential election.

Arroyo has zeroed in on the staffing levels police captains use to determine the number of officers needed in a district. They routinely rely on officers working overtime to meet those numbers.

In February, Arroyo filed a 17F request in an attempt to determine how police brass determine the number of staff needed in each district. BPD officials denied the 17F request, which asked for minutes of meetings used to make the staffing determinations in past years, citing unspecified public safety concerns.

Arroyo argues that without knowing how the department determines staffing needs in a district, it’s impossible to assess to what extent the overtime pay officers draw from the city’s coffers is actually necessary. While all major categories of crime have been in steady decline over the last 20 years, the overtime hours officers work continues to rise.

The councilors’ attempts to understand the overtime system are not unique to 2021. In 2015, the city commissioned a study of the department, which included an examination of overtime.

The study found that BPD did little to monitor how overtime is assigned.

“Currently, the department exercises little control over the process of assigning overtime,” the report reads. “Each district and specialized unit is assigned an overtime bank at the beginning of each year. The department needs to put additional measures in place to control and authorize overtime on an as-needed rather than routine basis.”

In addition to the lack of oversight, the 2015 report found that officers in some specialized units routinely came in early and clocked out late, racking up overtime even as the number of officers assigned to the units increased.

“The number of members in some specialty units has increased, yet the total amount of overtime is also increasing,” the report reads.

The report recommended that the department complete a “workload assessment of each district and unit to determine the proper staffing and deployment of all personnel by determining the number of work hours required to meet the service demands.”

Arroyo asked McGoldrick whether the department had made any changes based on the report’s recommendations.

“What have we done since 2015 to revamp the overtime process, if anything?” he asked.

McGoldrick said the department has “pretty significant controls on overtime,” noting that district captains are required to approve overtime, but did not cite a single change or reform to the overtime system.

“From the issuance of this report in December 2015, you’re essentially telling me there hasn’t been any change to the overtime process, structurally?” Arroyo asked.

While he didn’t cite any reforms, McGoldrick did question the report’s assertion that overtime allocated to districts appears to be based overtime usage from the previous year.

But Arroyo said captains have told him they are given an overtime bank — a pre-agreed-upon number of overtime hours their districts are allowed to use.

The current push by the Council to rein in police spending began last year when then-Mayor Martin Walsh pledged to cut 20% out of the department’s overtime budget in response to calls from police reform activists and city councilors of color for a 10% cut to the department’s $414 million overall budget.

By March of this year — well before the June 30 end of the fiscal year — the police department had already exceeded its overtime budget, cancelling out Walsh’s 20% cut. Since March, the Council has held a series of hearings in an as-yet fruitless attempt to find ways to save on overtime.

In Wednesday’s meeting, District 4 Councilor Andrea Campbell asked police brass present on the Zoom hearing whether they thought the overtime budget is sustainable.

“Do you think the $400 million budget with $70 million in overtime, just going up with nothing to rein it in, is sustainable?”

McGoldrick agreed that it wasn’t.

Campbell then asked whether special units, such as the Bicycle Unit and Gang Unit, could be re-deployed to provide greater coverage in districts.

McGoldrick said the department attempted to shift members of the motorcycle unit to districts 25 years ago.

“They realized that the capabilities that they lost and some of the lack of efficiencies rendered that a not really a worthwhile experiment,” he said.

He added that the Bicycle Unit and Gang Unit provide the department flexibility in dealing with protests and instances of violence.

“We can’t just simply take people from one district to another and rotate them around,” he said.

Arroyo made an argument for the department to comply with city law and furnish the Council with weekly updates on staffing levels and overtime.

“There’s a fundamental distrust with whether we need more officers or not,” Arroyo said. “And that distrust comes from the fact that we don’t see your staffing levels. We don’t see how you’re shifting officers. We don’t get to see whether or not that overtime is mismanagement, deployments being done incorrectly or whatever.”

Throughout the hearing, police officials offered no insights into how overtime could be reduced.

District 8 Councilor Kenzie Bok, who heads the Council’s Ways and Means Committee and presides over budget hearings, expressed frustration with the department’s seeming inability to rein in costs.

“We don’t really have a way to get there from here,” she said. “It’s not the kind of thing that’s likely to happen from keeping our fingers crossed.”