Police department spent budget-busting $22 million on overtime last year

New leaders say they are looking at getting the system under control.
New leaders say they are looking at getting the system under control.

Editor's Note: On Friday, Oct. 3 Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole expanded her request for a review of overtime spending in SPD's Education and Training Section to include a review of all overtime spending in 2013 and 2014.

The Seattle Police Department exceeded its overtime budget last year by over $7 million.

With only about $14.4 million allotted for overtime in 2013, the department paid out nearly $22 million. While that level of spending in itself does not indicate any abuse or unjustified earnings, it has raised questions about the department's financial management. The expenditure is substantial when considered within the city's overall police budget. The roughly $22 million sum would be enough to pay the regular annual salaries of more than 200 fully trained patrol officers, or to fund operations in the South Precinct for a full year. Even the roughly $7.5 million overrun would pay base salaries for 77 patrol officers.

Last week, the Office of Professional Accountability, which carries out misconduct investigations, issued a report identifying over $1 million of excessive overtime payments within the department's Education and Training Section. The report did not find that any officers had engaged in wrongdoing and pointed instead to longstanding organizational problems with overtime practices at the department. Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole responded by calling for the Office of the City Auditor to conduct an audit of the training unit.

Police officials are also taking a closer look at department-wide overtime payments and policies. 

"My concern has been to ensure that there's no systemic failure going forward," the department's chief operating officer, Mike Wagers, said in a phone interview yesterday. Appointed recently by O'Toole, Wagers is spearheading a number of major technology projects, as well as efforts to make the department more data-driven and better managed.

Asked if it was possible that any of the overtime payments were illegitimate, he said: "We're going to take a look at it; I just don't have a response to that right now."

"My assumption is that the officers that are earning overtime," Wagers added, "are doing so legitimately until we see some sort of red flag."

Crosscut obtained records through a public disclosure request, showing 2013 overtime payments for 1,650 department employees. The payments ranged from $10 to $82,465 and totaled $21,939,649. Eight individuals received more than $70,000 in overtime pay during the year.

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Job titles reflect each employee's position in 2014. Source: SPD

The list of overtime payments included only employee's names, not their positions. But a separate set of records showing regular salaries for 2014 categorizes the top 20 earners on the overtime list as either officers or sergeants. Regular salaries for these 20 individuals in 2014, not including overtime pay, ranged from $100,641 to $120,456. Assuming the employees made comparable base salaries last year, their total pay would have been between roughly $160,000 and about $199,000. Police Chief O'Toole's salary is $250,000.

For now, Wagers is focused on making sure that the department meets this year's overtime budget.

He said the department's overtime expenditures are already nearing the limit of this year's allocation. "We still have two-and-a-half months left." He has begun holding monthly "financial accountability meetings" with assistant chiefs and other top level staff to go over budget numbers and ensure that bureaus and units are on track to meeting spending goals.

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Seattle police on horseback at the Seahawks Super Bowl parade: Events cause a good deal of police overtime. In this case, the team had agreed to pay the entire bill for the parade and reimubrsed the city $659,000, according to the mayor's office. The team's contribution totaled more than all special-event fee collections in 2013. Bernie Zimmerman/Flickr

Wagers said he is also looking for ways that the department's computer system can provide a warning if employees cross certain overtime thresholds. For instance, if they log more than 24 hours in one day. The recent OPA review highlighted an employee who was paid for 31.5 hours in a one-day time period, but also noted that it was likely due to an account coding error.

In the wake of that report, the department is also planning to provide new budget training to commanders. "These are cops, these are people who came on the job to fight crime," Wagers said. "Have we provided them with the right training so that they understand these budgeting principles?"

While he could not give an exact figure, Wagers said that the majority of the overtime payments are the result of officers working special events, such as sports games or parades. "You can't avoid that piece of the pie chart," he remarked. The city has a permit fee system in place to recoup some of the costs from big events from the third parties that put them on. But, generally, these fees do not make much of a dent in the police overtime figures.

Indeed, roughly $3.9 million of unbudgeted overtime spending last year occurred in the Special Operations Bureau, which, at that time, included the police department's traffic enforcement division. The bureau has since undergone an organizational restructuring. A fiscal note attached to City Council legislation authorizing the overtime budget to increase by that amount attributes the overrun to special events and training.

A spokesperson for the mayor's office, Jason Kelly, said that the office collected $624,005 in permit fees last year. The Office of Economic Development administers the permits and the fee revenues are deposited in the city's general fund. "Permit fees are based on attendance and not on SPD or other City resources utilized for the event," Kelly said in an email. He added that, according to a city ordinance, traffic officers are partially covered by the permit fees, but the police department's safety and security staffing are not.

Kelly said that the mayor is proposing a review in 2015 of the special event cost structure and fee policy.

"These events bring thousands of people to Seattle each year, supporting our local businesses and the cultural life of the city," Kelly said. "But they also drive significant costs across city government."

Bruce Harrell chairs the City Council committee that oversees public safety. During a Budget Committee meeting on Thursday morning, he noted the OPA report and questioned whether it was time for an assessment of overtime policies in other city departments as well.

Contacted Thursday evening, Harrell chalked up some of the overtime expenditures to poor past management. "A smart manager will examine their costs and their overtime," he said. Harrell also expressed confidence that O'Toole and Wagers are working to get the overtime budget in check, and Harrell emphasized the new chief's commitment to transparency.

And while the overtime figures might seem large, Harrell said that having officers work extra hours is typically less expensive than hiring new cops, at least according to City Council staff estimates. That said, when asked if it was concerning that some officers had earned overtime equal to roughly two-thirds of their base pay, he said that it set off "resounding alarms."

"Under the old regime it was very difficult to get accurate information," Harrell said. "What we're now having with new leadership, they are looking at the soft underbelly of this department."

"We're getting the overtime numbers," he added.

Discussions about the department's overtime practices are unfolding as Mayor Ed Murray continues to push for funding to add police officers as part of his proposed 2015-2016 city budget.

City Council President Tim Burgess has said that he does not support expanding the force until the department undergoes an independent management review and resource deployment assessment. The Council allocated $500,000 for the review and assessment.

Harrell disagrees with Burgess on this point.

"I will continue to argue for more resources, because I want to have as many officers as we can out there in the field," he said. "That will not stop my desire for a forensic analysis on the department's budget."

The median salary for a fully trained patrol officer in 2014 is around $97,000, according to department salary records. While the amount of money spent on overtime last year could fund more than 225 salaries at that level, Wagers said the trade-offs are not that simple.

"It doesn't quite equate to the number of bodies that you can hire," he said, referring to overtime. The independent assessment and review should be complete early next year and Wagers believes those evaluations should provide some additional insight about whether the department is understaffed.

"The question really," Wagers said, "is do we have enough police officers in the city? Are we using overtime when we should be hiring police officers?"

But he also stressed the importance of monitoring overtime, metrics and holding people accountable. "We need," he said, "to do a better job with this."


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