With city officials looking to make good on promised cuts to Boston police overtime, department officials told city councilors on Tuesday that, on average, 94 positions are back-filled each day to replace officers who are out and still meet mandatory minimum staffing levels, which is a major factor that drives OT costs.
The revelation about everyday vacancies stemming from sickness, injury, vacation, and other reasons came weeks after the City Council passed an operating budget that took a $12 million bite out of the Boston Police Department’s overtime budget amid calls for significant reform.
In the aftermath of last month’s budget vote, councilors said they want to see structural changes to make the overtime reduction a reality, since police overtime is one of the few line items in the operating budget that is allowed to exceed its allotment, as it did for the last fiscal year.
On Tuesday, during a four-hour virtual hearing, City Councilor Kenzie Bok, who chairs the Committee on Ways and Means, said the council’s responsibility is to make sure the administration has a plan that will provide OT savings.
“Whatever is going to bring this number down by this much money this year has to be new controls, right, because old controls weren’t delivering this to us,” Bok said.
Lisa O’Brien, the Police Department’s finance director, told councilors that replacement personnel costs and extended tours contribute mightily to overtime costs.
Replacement costs topped $25 million last year, and more than two-thirds of that involved officers who were filling in for others who were injured, sick, or on vacation, according to O’Brien. The department, she said, needs to meet its mandatory minimum staffing requirements, which are established by analyzing the number of service calls in a district and the district’s population density. That means overtime spending to meet such requirements is non-discretionary, police officials said.
“We need to maintain minimum staffing levels at the districts,” O’Brien said. “It’s imperative.”
Tour extensions, when officers stay on duty after their shifts have ended, can also drive OT costs, O’Brien said. That can occur for a variety of reasons, including maintaining a crime scene while investigators respond.
Replacement costs and tour extensions comprised more than 67 percent of fiscal year 2020′s overtime costs of $72 million, according to police officials. A substantial reduction would have to include cuts to those aspects of the costs, they said.
For the fiscal year that recently ended, the department spent $5.7 million on overtime to police demonstrations, and $2.5 million for extra police around Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, where homeless people and those struggling with opioid abuse have traditionally gathered, officials said.
“Unforeseen events such as what we’ve encountered this year significantly impact our overtime costs; however, I just want to point out we will never compromise public safety for any of these events,” O’Brien said.
Among the overtime-reducing measures being reviewed by the department include an evaluation of all units to see if resources need to be redirected, replacing administrative positions currently being filled by 80 to 100 sworn officers with civilians, and reducing tour extensions in a variety of ways, including having search warrants executed by on-duty personnel when feasible. O’Brien also said the department is considering ways to get injured officers back to work “safely but expeditiously.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, councilors floated various ideas to cut costs. What about reducing or eliminating some specialized BPD units and having those officers work standard patrol shifts? Could the length of the shifts and the structure of the workweek be changed to yield savings?
Councilor Andrea Campbell said there are “a lot of options on the table” for reducing overtime while still providing the officers needed to cover the city’s various districts.
“I really want to hear from the administration, what their commitments are, what pieces of this they’re actually going to do,” Campbell said. “Otherwise, time is going to run out and we’ll be back here talking about how we did not realize this savings.”
Councilor Ed Flynn said the city needs to hire several hundred more officers “just to stay in the game.” He said police overtime budget cuts “were too excessive.”
“Maybe it’s time to raise taxes in the city to deal with this,” Flynn said. “Because this is a crisis. We need to have more police officers on the street.”
Superintendent Dennis White said the department anticipates 100 officers will retire this year, with 15 to 17 of them being mandatory retirements.
“Officers are leaving the job at a younger age,” White said.
According to the department, as of July 22 there were 2,156 sworn officers.
Police Superintendent James Hasson said during the meeting that the department had been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. He estimated 32 officers are currently out because of that crisis.
“We’re still feeling the effects from that,” he said.