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EDITORIAL

Start holding the line on police overtime

The Boston police should cut down on excessive overtime pay as a matter of cost and public safety.

If public safety is indeed the first concern, cutting down on excessive police overtime should be a priority.
If public safety is indeed the first concern, cutting down on excessive police overtime should be a priority.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

In most workplaces, overtime pay is just that — the higher wage paid for the time an employee works over a certain weekly amount, typically 40 hours. In the interests of saving money, and encouraging a healthy work/life balance, many employers try to minimize it.

The opposite is true for the Boston police. Officers are allowed to work up to 90 hours a week and even longer with supervisor permission, according to a recent Globe news story, meaning the armed officer responding to crises may well be sleep-deprived. And instead of seeking to avoid overtime, the city has let it become the norm: the potential for enormous overtime pay is baked into the collective bargaining agreement between the city of Boston and the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association. In many instances, it kicks in no matter how many total hours a week the officer has in fact worked.

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As reported by the Globe’s Matt Rocheleau and Dugan Arnett, the average pay for police department employees last year was $127,094, which includes nearly $30,000 in overtime and $20,000 in paid details, which are assignments paid for by private entities like utility companies and event sponsors. Meanwhile, as they report, the police payroll has jumped dramatically over the past decade, increasing by $125 million — or 43 percent — since 2011. And over the same time period, overtime has grown by $35.5 million, or 84 percent.

Numerous provisions in the city’s contract with the police union are an open invitation to run up overtime pay, and calls for various tasks to automatically be paid as overtime. For example, an officer who leaves work and is then called back, or is recalled on a scheduled day off or during his or her vacation, is guaranteed a minimum of four hours of overtime pay. An officer who shows up for a court appearance is guaranteed “no less than four hours of overtime pay.” And except for certain limited exceptions relating to drug officers, scheduled tours of duty can’t be changed “for the purpose of avoiding the overtime provisions” of the contract.“

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The contract also calls for scheduled overtime to be posted and distributed to all employees on “an equitable and fair basis” — underscoring the concept that the money that goes with OT is an entitlement, a perk to be doled out, not pay that should be minimized or avoided.

Under the contract, those are many legitimate ways for an officer to maximize overtime pay. Yet, some officers abuse even that generosity. As Rocheleau and Arnett reported, a payroll abuse scheme allowed Boston police Lieutenant Timothy Kervin to collect a salary of $237,272 back in 2005 — more than any other city official. Then-commissioner Ed Davis fired him — or thought he did. Somehow, Kervin retained his job, and is once again the city’s highest paid employee, earning $355,538, including $115,361 in overtime pay.

The way to bring down overtime costs is at the bargaining table. However, Mayor Martin J. Walsh does not seem very concerned about it. He declined to address potential abuse issues, such as the Kervin matter, and said that public safety is his first concern, so, police overtime is often justified, an excuse that doesn’t square with the contract language calling for hours of extra overtime for court appearances and other provisions. Responding to the current call to reallocate police resources, Walsh recently announced a move to transfer $12 million from the police overtime budget to social service programming and said another $3 million would be sent directly to the Department of Public Health. That’s not much of a sacrifice, given that major events, such as the St. Patrick’s Day parade and Boston Marathon were called off this year due to the coronavirus shutdown.

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As for current complaints about police overtime from members of the Boston City Council — they can and should be the last line of defense against overly generous union agreements, a responsibility they have dodged in the past. City councilors can vote not to fund them, and if they dislike the extravagant overtime pay and disciplinary process for officers that has been enshrined in past contracts, they should avoid rubber-stamping them next time. In the event of an impasse, if contracts end up in arbitration, they can vote to reject the results: In 1987, the state Legislature granted the power to appropriating bodies, such as city councils, to reject or modify arbitration awards to police and firefighters.

The cost to taxpayers should only be part of the assessment. In addition to the expense, the current system threatens to exacerbate the mental and physical fatigue that can hinder judgment in the tense situations to which police are regularly called to respond. If public safety is indeed the first concern, cutting down on excessive overtime should be a priority.

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Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.