As it reviews Mayor Michelle Wu’s $4 billion budget proposal, the Boston City Council on Thursday peppered police officials with questions about the department’s policies and priorities, from reducing overtime to increasing racial diversity among employees.
Wu has proposed trimming the city’s policing budget by 1 percent to $396 million that accounts for a wave of retirements among veteran, higher-paid officers, reducing overall compensation costs, according to the chief of the department’s Bureau of Administration and Technology Lisa O’Brien.
The budget for the next fiscal year begins July 1.
At a lengthy City Hall hearing, Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson, chair of the council’s ways and means committee that oversees police budget discussions, questioned police officials about high overtime spending. O’Brien said that overtime, while costly, was necessary to meet the mandatory minimums set by police. If officers hit projected overtime levels this fiscal year, she said, the department will have surpassed budgeted funding by more than 357,000 hours.
City councilors and police officials agreed that requiring overtime can pose a major mental health challenge to officers, though they debated over how best to curb it.
“Sleep deprivation does take a toll on you,” said Boston Police Superintendent Marcus Eddings, pointing to research showing that in some cases, fatigue has the same effect on reaction time as a blood alcohol level of 0.1.
“A good officer is a healthy officer,” agreed City Council President Ed Flynn. “I’m going to continue to advocate for [adding] 200 to 300 police officers every year ... so that they’re not working into their 15th hour. That’s when you begin to get tired and that’s when you begin to make mistakes.”
Councilor Ricardo Arroyo was one of several councilors to question the mandatory minimum staffing levels known to contribute heavily to overtime spending. Each police district in the city has a minimum number of officers expected to be working each day, thresholds that Deputy Superintendent James Tarantino said have “been fairly consistent for the last decade.”
“There’s no formula” for the staffing levels, which are loosely based on call volume over an extended period of time, Tarantino said.
Several councilors, including Liz Breadon and Kendra Lara, advocated for an increase in emergency mental health services, including a program involving clinicians that police said has been highly successful in reducing the use of force when responding to mental health crises.
“We’re no longer kicking doors in just for [a mental health emergency], because we realize we’re creating exigency by doing that,” Tarantino said. “Unless that person is a threat to others, we’ll back away and give time, space, and distance. We weren’t necessarily doing that before, but we’re doing it now.”
Councilor Julia Mejia focused on employee diversity in the department and the push in recent years to create a cadet program that draws new officers who better represent the demographics of the neighborhoods they serve.
“While I really appreciate the efforts that are being made, there needs to be so much more investment in diversity, not just in recruitment but in leadership and in terms of who is making decisions about how we police here in the city of Boston,” she said, adding that diversity should encompass gender and language ability as well as ethnicity. “It’s important for us to underscore the improvement we need to make in professional development in terms of how we’re training our police officers to be more culturally competent.”
The hearing also left room for public testimony, where residents were invited to speak in person or via Zoom about their priorities for police spending. AnneMarie Grant said she supported a reallocation of police funds into community organizations, calling for councilors to “be proactive with our tax dollars.”
“Imagine taking 100 million dollars from this excessive budget and investing it in the neighborhoods that need it the most,” she said. “Tax money needs to support communities like Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan ... Shift funds [to support schools, housing, and other resources] for three to five years and I bet it would substantially change the community.”
The full hearing is available to view on the City Council’s YouTube page.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Lisa O’Brien’s title as finance director.
Ivy Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @itsivyscott.