Police overtime in Boston is kind of like crabgrass: You can cut it down, but it just keeps growing back.
So the grand gesture Mayor Marty Walsh made last June, cutting $12 million from the police overtime budget even as people took to the streets demanding change, was just that — a grand gesture, which, as it turned out, was more of a shell game. Because the unfortunate fact about police overtime is that there are no limits on it — it just goes on and on, and always will, unless Walsh’s successors do better than he did at negotiating better police union contracts.
The mayor didn’t back up his pledge with the tougher police management that would have been needed to make good on it. So now, with Walsh on his way to Washington as secretary of labor, the $48 million he allocated to police overtime has essentially all been spent — and there are still three and a half months left in the fiscal year. Walsh channeled that $12 million to a variety of worthy causes — including Public Health Commission initiatives ($4 million), housing and homelessness resources ($2 million), and a mental health services partnership between Boston Medical Center’s emergency services and the police department ($2 million) — a move that now comes back to haunt his successor and the city he leaves behind.
Soon-to-be Acting Mayor Kim Janey will face an anticipated budget deficit in the police overtime account of about $15 million, according to figures presented at last Friday’s oversight hearing by the City Council’s Ways and Means Committee.
The sad truth is that, as Ways and Means chair Kenzie Bok put it, “At this point, the department would have to stop spending on any overtime hours” to keep on budget.
That isn’t, of course, going to happen, in part for reasons of public safety and in part because so much overtime is baked into the city’s contracts with its four police unions.
Boston Police Superintendent James Hasson, testifying before the council, blamed retirements (about 102 so far this year, compared with 126 for all of last year), the pandemic, which meant “backfilling” for sick or quarantined officers, a summer that included more street demonstrations in favor of police reform, and preparations around the November election.
During the run-up to the election and on Election Day itself, Hasson said, “All leaves were canceled.” Officers were assigned 12-hour shifts, amassing nearly 63,000 hours of overtime, costing taxpayers about $4 million. Summer protests added about $2.7 million in overtime costs.
The department’s heavy spending comes despite pandemic restrictions that have cut off other sources of police OT. As Councilor Matt O’Malley noted during the hearing, there were no special sporting events or parades to add to the department’s overtime budget.
Court time, which has always proved a lucrative source of overtime pay for officers — billed under contract rules at never less than four hours of overtime no matter how short the courthouse stay — was, of course, way down this year, with in-person court sessions held to a precious few and jury trials only now beginning to resume.
Overtime attributed to court time for the fiscal year ending June 30 was — as of the Feb. 19 numbers provided by the department — only about 15,000 hours, compared with more than 69,000 hours last year.
As the Boston Municipal Research Bureau noted last July, shortly after Walsh’s announcement, “Management of police overtime costs continues to be a unique and chronic challenge for the city.” High on their list were oversight of “injury leave and replacement overtime,” precisely the cost drivers cited by Hasson.
COVID-19 is only the latest wrinkle in an old story. The bureau reported that “over the last decade, police overtime spending has made up between 58 percent and 63 percent of the city’s total spending on overtime.”
This year, Hasson said, the department was running 43 percent over its budgeted overtime hours — which Bok projected at some $15 million in deficit spending.
It is the nature of policing to have to respond to the unexpected — whether it’s a summer of demonstrations or a championship celebration complete with duck boat parade. But BPD continues year after excruciating year to exceed its already generous overtime budgets; last year, OT costs ran $72 million — $12 million more than budgeted.
That has less to do with the unexpected than with contract provisions that virtually guarantee substantial amounts of overtime — on average, some $30,000 a year — plus paid details, assignments paid for by private entities such as utilities (which, naturally, pass those costs on to ratepayers). When it comes to changing shifts to avoid unnecessary overtime, the department’s hands are virtually tied by collective bargaining agreements. It’s those agreements — which expired June 30 — that hold the key to both holding down costs and reimagining the future of policing in Boston.
It should be obvious by now that this department won’t change until change is forced upon it by the next mayor.
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