As Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration prepares to present next year’s budget to the City Council in the coming weeks, police overtime spending remains a hot-button issue, a source of major scandals at both the local and state level.
Last year’s overtime spending totaled $72.2 million, 18 percent of the $408 million paid to officers in 2021, according to the city’s yearly earnings report released in February. While still $23 million beyond the city’s overtime budget, it represents a notable decrease from recent years, dipping below $75 million for the first time since 2017.
Here’s a quick summary of the department’s spending in 2021:
1) Overtime spending fell by nearly $6 million, the biggest drop in more than a decade.
Overtime spending, which is typically paid at a time-and-a-half hourly rate, declined from a high of $78 million in 2020 to $72.2 million, a dip that is particularly striking after a decade of steady increases and only modest declines.
Police spokesman Sergeant Detective John Boyle said public events and court sessions canceled during the pandemic played a role in the drop, but largely attributed the decrease to “a concerted effort to decrease overtime across the city.” That included efforts by the department’s medical and administrative units to get sick officers back on the job promptly, reducing the number of replacement shifts at overtime rates.
The department also instructed commanding officers to “adjust the squads and balance the shifts,” Boyle said, reassigning officers to shifts that were consistently understaffed to reduce the need for overtime.
2) Fifty-six police workers made six figures in overtime alone.
Thirty of those officers earned more in overtime than in regular pay, with some officers making as much as $36,000 more in overtime than their base salary. Police said the primary reason officers receive overtime is a staffing policy that requires a minimum number of officers for each shift. Often, if a police unit doesn’t have enough people to meet the minimum because employees are out sick or on vacation, they will ask officers finishing their previous shift to stay and work a second shift, all on overtime.
The policy was designed to ensure no area of the city is understaffed or lacks coverage, and staffing levels are determined by “historical data: call volumes, reports generated, increase or decrease in crime,” Boyle said. “It’s always being monitored.”
But observers note that while the policy may periodically be adjusted to account for major events or trends, staffing requirements aren’t consistently updated to reflect population or seasonal changes in crime.
“We used the same numbers for a Monday night in the middle of February that we’d use on a Saturday night in the middle of July,” said former police lieutenant Tom Nolan, now a sociology professor at Emmanuel College. “So the multi-millions that are walking out the door are walking out through that minimum staffing” policy.
While some officers volunteer to work extra shifts — their names consistently appear at the top of yearly overtime lists — many consider the additional hours to be “forced overtime,” time they would rather be spending at the dinner table or on the Little League field.
“The overwhelming majority of our officers don’t want to be forced to work 85 or 90 hours a week, doing double and triple shifts in overtime,” said Larry Calderone, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association. “We want to go home and watch our kids grow up, see their ball games, and take care of our families, just like everyone else.”
3) The top 10 percent of overtime earners collected more than one-third of all overtime spending.
Similarly, the top 20 percent of earners received nearly 60 percent of overtime spending, meaning that the majority of overtime dollars went to a small fraction of the department.
According to the patrolmen’s union, the way to reduce overtime spending across the board is simple: “Hire more officers.” The union pointed to a 1979 city ordinance that set the size of the police department to a “strength of not less than 2,500.″ The current number of employees on the department’s payroll is just over 3,000, including several hundred administrative positions.
“The number of citizens that live in the city of Boston is up over the last few years, and the number of calls is up, but the number of police officers answering those calls is down,” Calderone said. “You can’t keep doing more with less, and then turn around and blame the officers who received the pay after being ordered to do so.”
Boyle said Boston was in a unique position last year, with fewer public events than usual paired with fewer and less severe COVID-19 illnesses than in 2020, and said he expects overtime to increase again this year as the city returns to normal. But the department is requesting an independent review of the mandatory minimum staffing policy that he hopes will help the department better distribute officers across the city.
Reform advocates called for a continued focus on overtime misuse, and a commitment from the department to crack down on fraudulent earnings and hold offenders accountable.
“Some amount of overtime is a fact of life,” said Jamarhl Crawford, a former member of the city’s police reform task force. “It’s the abuse and all the preferential treatment that goes into that system that’s the problem.”
4) The two highest-paid officers last year each made over $1.2 million — and neither was on the job.
Typically, annual earnings for even the highest-paid employees top out around $350,000. The top 25 consist largely of sergeants, lieutenants, and captains with six-figure base salaries and sizable income in overtime or detail. (Detail is paid by private-sector businesses like construction companies or event planners, not taxpayer dollars.)
But in 2021, two former police officers — Richard Beckers and Jacqueline McGowan — topped the list for employee earnings. The two officers received a combined $2.5 million in back pay from the department after they were wrongly fired two decades ago, when a faulty drug test that disproportionately affects Black Americans falsely determined that they were using cocaine.
Three other Black officers — Shawn Harris, Walter Washington, and George Downing — were also fired in the early 2000s for alleged drug use. They were later rehired and received roughly $200,000 each in back pay last year for the time they were unable to work.