Last summer, Boston city officials tried to slash the Police Department’s overtime spending amid calls for significant reform of the department and a push to tackle systemic racism.
But more than halfway into the city’s current fiscal year, that effort appears to have failed to realize the desired overtime reduction.
During a Friday virtual hearing of the Boston City Council’s Ways and Means Committee, police officials indicated that the department so far this fiscal year has exceeded its expected number of overtime hours by about 43 percent, which is projected to result in an extra $15 million or more in costs.
Boston police Superintendent James Hasson told councilors that the COVID-19 pandemic and an aging workforce were drivers of the overtime, saying that at one point during the COVID-19 crisis more than 300 officers were out of work and adding that there have been “numerous” retirements. The department has more than 2,000 sworn officers.
“COVID really put us back on our heels,” said Hasson.
Councilor Kenzie Bok, chairwoman of the council’s Ways and Means Committee, said it was disappointing that the department looks like it will exceed the budgeted overtime amount of $48 million.
“All overtime from now to June 30 puts us in the red,” she said.
Overtime for the department is buoyed by so-called “replacement costs,” which backfill positions to meet mandatory staffing minimums because of daily vacancies. Last summer, police officials said 94 positions are backfilled each day to replace officers who are out. Such costs continue to drive overtime, officials said Friday.
Hasson said Friday the department is aiming to get injured officers back on the job, something that would decrease overtime spending. He added that routing some calls for service to other agencies would cut costs. This year’s overtime cost, he said, are about 9 percent below last year’s overtime levels.
“We do recognize the importance of working within our budget, but also we recognize the important of maintaining public safety, which is our primary function,” said Hasson.
Councilor Ed Flynn said he thought the city needed to hire “several hundred more police officers” to tamp down department OT.
“That will address the issue of forced overtime that’s happening,” said Flynn.
Police overtime has become a hot-button issue in city politics in recent months.
Last summer, the City Council passed an operating budget that took a $12 million bite out of the Boston Police Department’s overtime budget as residents, advocates, and politicians called for reform.
That funding was rerouted to social services and community programs. The 8-to-5 operating budget vote last summer was closely scrutinized, with some critics saying it did not go far enough to address systemic inequities in the city.
In the aftermath of that vote, councilors said they want to see structural changes to make the overtime reduction a reality, because 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.
Indeed, fiscal year 2020′s police overtime costs came in at $72 million, about $12 million over the allotted budget amount of $60 million.
And given Friday’s update, it appears the ballyhooed $12 million cut from the department’s OT budget of $60 million, to $48 million, was a symbolic move.
“Unless [the department] stopped having any overtime hours today, it will not hit the budget target of $48 million,” said Bok at Friday’s hearing.
City Councilor Andrea Campbell, who is one of three councilors running for mayor, said the situation was ”disappointing and incredibly concerning because it’s not fiscally sustainable, and the administration and department have not attempted changes that could reduce overtime while still providing adequate coverage to police districts.”
“Until the city actualizes our commitments and implements police reforms with timelines and accountability for metrics, BPD will continue to struggle to build trust with and properly serve our communities,” she said in a statement.
Michelle Wu, who is also running for mayor said she had voted against the budget several months ago fearing an overtime problem.
“We need bold, urgent leadership to transform our systems of public health and safety based on building trust through transparency and accountability,” Wu said.
The third city councilor running for mayor, Annissa Essaibi George, did not respond to requests for comment Friday evening.