Amid sustained calls for police reform, marches demanding an end to systemic racism, and an uptick in street violence, more than 30 Boston police officers made more than $300,000 last year thanks in part to overtime earnings that yet again exceeded what the city had budgeted for the year, according to city data.
All in all, the department’s top 30 earners collected a total of $3.9 million in overtime pay for the year. The grand total for this top group: more than $9.6 million in total earnings.
They aren’t the only ones in the department taking home hefty paychecks, either. Overall, 509 Boston officers made more than $200,000 last year. By contrast, the mayor makes $199,000.
The substantial paydays highlight the challenge facing city officials and other advocates who say they’re determined to rein in the department’s spending as part of a broader effort to rethink policing. Police funding has become an increasingly scrutinized political issue in Boston and across the country following last year’s police slaying of George Floyd in Minneapolis and subsequent local demonstrations protesting police brutality.
Sean P. Smith, a lieutenant, was the top earner in the department, pulling in $124,000 in overtime on top of his $145,000 in base pay. He also collected roughly $45,000 in detail pay, which is accrued separately from overtime; $36,000 in educational benefits; and $13,000 in “other” pay, according to city records.
All told, Smith made $365,000. (Taxpayers don’t directly pay for details, although developers and utilities do pass on those costs to consumers.)
Smith was followed on the list by Waiman Lee, a detective who made $360,000. His base pay was $108,000 and he earned $96,000 in overtime. The third-highest earner in the department John M. Brown, a sergeant detective who made $345,000. Brown’s base pay was $132,000 and he made $155,000 in overtime.
“We have people who work for the city who have to live in subsidized housing just to be able to make ends meet,” said Councilor Julia Mejia on Tuesday. “At the same time, there are officers on the force who are making more than $300,000 a year.”
Boston, said Mejia, is supposed to be “a model for good employment practices, but this amount of disparity between the haves and the have-nots clearly indicates that we need to make a change.”
Department officials have cited replacement costs, where positions are backfilled to meet mandatory staffing minimums because of daily vacancies, as a primary reason for overtime costs.
This week, Sergeant Detective John Boyle, a Boston police spokesman, said replacement costs for officers either out injured or out for reasons related to COVID-19 drove overtime levels last year. There were also additional patrols in crime hot spots in 2020, he said, and more police resources dedicated to the area near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, which historically has been the center of the opioid and homelessness crises in the city.
Tanisha Sullivan, the president of the NAACP Boston Branch, said recently that the issue of police spending speaks to the need for the city “to fully implement the policing reforms that were advanced last year,” when former mayor Martin J. Walsh convened a task force to look at ways to improve the department.
Among the chief proposals to emerge from that task force was the Office of Police Accountability and Transparency, or OPAT. The new, independent police watchdog was signed into law earlier this year and includes a civilian review board, which Sullivan indicated could probe issues like police expenditures.
“The longer it takes for the OPAT to be fully ramped up and for the civilian review board to be made, the longer the community is waiting for greater transparency and accountability,” said Sullivan, who served on the police reform task force.
Acting Mayor Kim Janey recently named Stephanie Everett as OPAT’s executive director, a role Everett is expected to start on Monday. Janey’s proposed budget also commits $1 million to fund OPAT.
Critics have said that Janey’s proposed $400 million Police Department budget — the drafting of which was one of her most significant actions since she took office — falls far short of the cuts in police spending that they have demanded, and that Janey herself called for a year ago.
Janey’s spending plan represents a modest reduction of just $4 million from this fiscal year’s approved BPD budget and is $21 million below the actual amount of money the department will spend this year. Exceeding its allotted annual overtime budget is a chronic issue for the department.
To cut deeper, the acting mayor said when she unveiled her spending proposal, would only exacerbate overtime spending. In this fiscal year, which ends June 30, police are projected to spend $65 million on overtime, well beyond the budgeted amount of $48 million, but down from last year’s overtime costs of $75 million. Janey has proposed $43 million for overtime next year and her administration has said it is committed to keep overtime costs down.
Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association president Larry Calderone said police officers could work fewer hours if the city “would simply hire more cops.” Many officers are working the equivalent of two full-time jobs every week in part because of forced overtime, he said in a statement.
“Stop asking us to do more with less,” he said. Messages left with two other police unions in the city were not returned this week.
Last year presented unique challenges for the department. There were times when COVID-19 ravaged the nation’s oldest police force, sidelining officers as those who tested positive for the virus and those who were exposed to positive cases had to isolate. The department blew past its budget allotment for overtime, rendering a $12 million overtime cut that Walsh made in this year’s budget moot. (Police overtime is one of the few line items in the city budget that can exceed its approved allotment.)
A police superintendent told city councilors last month 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.
The council’s ways and means committee is scheduled to hold a working session about next year’s budget on Friday, where they will discuss funding for the police.
“It is incumbent upon the City Council in its budget deliberations to fully examine the police overtime budget and to ensure that the department has the resources it needs but also that those resources are being expended in a way that bolsters community trust,” said Sullivan.
Brian Higgins, a former police chief for Bergen County, New Jersey, who now is a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said recently that overtime is always a “touchy subject” and noted that COVID-19 has had a significant impact on all government budgets, including public safety.
“I often described it as the same as the salt for the ground [for the winter],” he said of overtime. “How do you know? How do you know how much to buy?”
Last year also saw an uptick in violent crime such as homicides and shootings in Boston, and a spike in violence was also seen in national trends in 2020. With increases in such crime and a staffing pool decimated by the coronavirus, the way a department gets “the numbers they need” is to pay overtime, said Higgins.
There were no large-scale celebrations in Boston for most of last year, meaning annual events that require a significant police presence, such as the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the Boston Marathon, and the Caribbean Carnival Parade, were nixed.
However, there were large-scale marches and demonstrations that prompted sizable police responses throughout the year. And while many celebrations were canceled, Boyle, the police spokesman, said that the department was kept busy around the Fourth of July holiday dealing with an abnormally high number of calls regarding fireworks and that police had to respond to events that were held in lieu of the Caribbean parade.