At least five Boston police officers were ordered to work 24-hour shifts on two recent weekends, union officials said Tuesday, raising fiscal and public safety concerns.
“To order police officers to work a third tour knowing they’re exhausted, knowing that their mental capacity to be awake and aware while carrying that firearm [is diminished], it’s really a tragedy,” said Larry Calderone, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, the department’s largest union. “The city is gambling with the safety of our community and our members by these reckless staffing decisions.”
Calderone said the union “condemned” the practice of forcing officers to work double or triple shifts, which last 16 and 24 hours, respectively. Triple shifts remain relatively rare but are more common in the summer when the city holds a host of special events that require extra officers on duty, as was the case on two recent Saturdays, July 9 and June 25, he said.
“Do you need to issue the permit for the parade? Do you need to shut down 1.7 miles in Jamaica Plain for a block party, if you know you don’t have the police officers to safely fulfill the mission at hand?” he asked. “The answer is no. Shorten the parade, shorten the block party. You have to tell somebody no.”
Sergeant Detective John Boyle, the chief spokesman for Boston police, declined to comment on officers working double and triple shifts.
Staffing levels are not part of ongoing union contract negotiations, which means unions can’t push for a limit on how long officers are required to work in a day, Calderone said. He said the solution is to increase the roughly 1,600-person force to 2,500, a staffing minimum set by a 1980 city ordinance but rarely adhered to in recent years.
But others believe the reliance on overtime stems from mandatory minimum staffing levels, which dictate how many officers must work during a given shift. If a unit doesn’t have enough officers on an assigned shift, other officers must work overtime to meet the minimum.
While those levels may be periodically adjusted to account for major events or trends, they aren’t consistently updated to reflect population or seasonal changes in crime.
“You’ll have the same minimum number of police officers required on shifts on a Tuesday night in the middle of January as you would on a Saturday night in July,” said former police lieutenant Tom Nolan, now a sociology professor at Emmanuel College. “It just doesn’t make sense from a management perspective that tens of millions of dollars are walking out the door just to fund these mandatory minimum staffing levels.”
Overtime was a major point of contention during the City Council budget meetings this year, with some councilors supporting the union’s demands and others seeking the reallocation of police funds to initiatives they believed would reduce the burden on officers.
Last month, the council voted to approve Mayor Michelle Wu’s $3.99 billion operating budget, backing away from an earlier proposal to cut $13 million from the police budget. But Calderone warned that reducing overtime was about more than money, calling on the city to act quickly to avoid a public safety crisis.
“If a police officer struck a pedestrian while driving to a call, or even worse discharged their firearm and killed somebody, we’d be talking about how he was on his 23rd hour,” he said. “And we just can’t have that.”
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story failed to say that the quotations by Sergeant Detective John Boyle, the police department spokesman, were from a previous story. On Tuesday, Boyle declined to comment on the scheduling issue. The Globe regrets the error.