Two years ago, Baltimore officials said they had come up with a new police deployment plan that would curb the use of overtime while increasing the number of officers on the streets.
Instead, overtime spending has continued to soar — to double what it was in 2013 — and the agency is now spending nearly $1 million a week to supplement regular staffing.
The Police Department is on pace to exceed its $17 million overtime budget by nearly $30 million — a troubling figure for a city struggling to invest in beleaguered neighborhoods while also complying with a consent decree that mandates better policing.
Officials say the rising costs go hand-in-hand with staffing shortages amid a sharp rise in crime. City Hall has cut the number of sworn police officers by one-sixth over the past two years, but the Police Department still hasn't been able to hire officers fast enough to keep pace with attrition.
"We are in a quandary," Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said in an interview.
The recent indictment of seven officers has exposed another problem: the ease with which fraudulent overtime pay could be obtained. One sergeant is accused of falsely claiming to have worked when he was really at the beach.
The new deployment plan that began in January 2015 under former Commissioner Anthony Batts called for a significant departure from a schedule of standard 8-hour shifts. Instead officers were assigned to work four 10-hour shifts per week, followed by three days off.
City officials agreed to move to the new scheduling even though they knew from studying the idea that it would require a full complement of officers — likely even more than they had at the time.
"One of our biggest concerns was what would happen if they didn't staff it properly," said Gene Ryan, president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police union.
But in the same pact with the union that authorized the new schedule, the city cut more than 200 positions from the police budget in order to pay for a 13 percent salary increase for officers.
Then, violence soared following the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015 from injuries suffered in police custody. The department saw officers leave, and it struggled to fill their positions. Another 225 positions were frozen by the city as officials sought to balance the budget. The agency also reduced the patrol ranks to staff specialized units.
While the agency for years overspent its overtime budget, it hadn't spent more than $30 million on overtime. It has exceeded that figure each of the past three years. Police overtime spending is on pace to reach $46 million by the end of the fiscal year June 30.
The Police Department's total budget of $480 million represents nearly a fifth of the city's overall $2.6 billion operating budget.
Davis told City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young at a hearing this month that the agency did not have the number of officers necessary to staff the 2-year-old deployment plan. He pointed to the impact of the 2015 unrest, along with the difficulty in recruiting new officers, as a major challenge.
"We went into that plan with a lot of assumptions. One of the assumptions was we would eventually catch up and add the number of police officers necessary to make that shift plan work," Davis said at the hearing. "Those assumptions that we made really took a big blow with ... the events that happened in 2015."
Even so, with the city school budget facing a huge deficit, City Council members are pledging to cut the Police Department budget by $10 million for the coming year. Ryan Dorsey, a freshman councilman who is vice chair of the public safety committee, thinks the police budget could be cut even more if the department made simple investments in technology — such as computers in police cars — that could increase efficiency.
"It's not policing that brings about a peaceful city in which people enjoy living," said Dorsey, who represents Northeast Baltimore. "We would be better off investing in resources for individuals and communities that are not police-based resources."
Should the city stay the course, there is no quick fix on the horizon. Even if police were able to boost hiring, those officers would not hit the streets for a year after the recruitment and police academy process.
"When staffing changes dramatically, there's no quick resolution," said John Skinner, a lecturer at Towson University who retired as a deputy commissioner in 2014. "It takes months if not years to right those staffing levels."
According to data provided by the Police Department, the agency is at its lowest number of officers in decades. From 2000 to 2012, the agency never had fewer than 2,953 sworn officers, and peaked at 3,278 in 2002. But since 2012, the number has fallen by more than 500 officers, to 2,506 sworn staff.
That may be surprising to critics of the agency who have pointed to its growing budget, which has risen by $130 million since 2011. But city officials say that has largely been driven by increased pension, salary and overtime costs. Ninety percent of the police budget is tied to personnel costs.
"There is more to the budget than meets the eye," Davis said.
The department also remains one of the highest-staffed in the country, in terms of the city's population, though it is also grappling with one of the highest violent crime rates and 550,000 calls for service annually. With officers on medical leave, light duty and suspensions, the available number of officers falls to fewer than 2,200.
Despite the overruns in overtime spending, city officials say they have been able to cover the gap with higher-than-expected revenues or with savings from open positions. But the extra money spent on police means it isn't available for other city services, such as libraries or parks.
Surrounding police departments stick more closely to their budgeted overtime amounts. Baltimore County spent about $8.1 million on overtime in fiscal year 2016, slightly more than its overtime budget of about $7.7 million. The county's total police budget is $198.5 million.
Anne Arundel County spent $7.54 million, more than its $5.88 million overtime budget. It spends $127 million total on policing.
Howard County, which spends $104 million on policing, underspent its overtime budget. It spent $6.86 million of a $6.94 million overtime budget. The Harford County sheriff's office, which spends $48 million on policing, spent $2.3 million, just over its $2 million overtime budget. The Carroll County sheriff's office overspent its $361,700 overtime budget by spending $536,230.
In 2007, at the urging of the police union, Baltimore police agreed to study using four 10-hour shifts with a pilot program in the department's Northeastern District.
Commanders liked the arrangement: It created a "power shift" in which two shifts overlapped during peak crime hours. Crime in the district dropped. A survey conducted by the police union found that 100 percent of officers questioned preferred the new shift.
But the city did not move forward. A spokesman for then-Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said the scheduling change would be "resource-intensive" and that it would have to be looked at more closely from a cost perspective. The police union president at the time was so upset that he boycotted Bealefeld's confirmation hearing.
Batts arrived from California in 2012, where departments are generally leaner on staffing, and commissioned consultants at a cost of $285,000 to study Baltimore's department from top to bottom. Their report in 2013 found that overtime "often runs over the budget, even while analysis indicates that overtime is not always used in a prudent and effective manner."
Under staffing conditions at the time, the report found, as much as 40 percent of the police beats on each shift were being staffed using overtime. That year, police spent $25 million on overtime.
"Mandatory overtime, sometimes imposed with short notice, is hurting morale among the young patrol force and contributing to steady attrition in the ranks," the report said, calling for a reassessment of staffing practices.
Batts hired Annapolis-based police management consultant Peter Bellmio to study deployments and help implement the plan. Batts' goal in moving to the four-day, 10-hour shifts, Bellmio said in an interview, was to beef up patrol, reduce the workload for officers, and allow them to get to know residents and do more proactive police work. Officers in Baltimore spent far more time than peers in other cities going from call to call.
To make the plan work, the Police Department would need 1,250 officers in patrol. Staffing was just short of that level at the time, but officials hoped they could ramp up recruiting or move around resources to get there. Bellmio thought they needed even more.
"The analysis I did, they needed to be closer to 1,300 or 1,400," he said.
Major deployment changes couldn't be made without amending the police union contract. In 2014, the city struck a new three-year agreement with the police union that would allow the new work schedule to be implemented. Police received a 13 percent pay increase as part of the pact — which the city said it would pay for by cutting more than 200 positions.
Another 225 positions were frozen the following year.
With a deployment schedule that requires 1,250 officers, police say the agency has about 900 officers assigned to patrol. Ryan says with suspensions and injuries, the number of "healthy bodies" available is less than 800.
Bellmio said criticism of the four-day schedule is overstated. The primary problem is the agency's staffing level.
"I think if you had other schedules, you'd have the same problems," he said. "The fundamental problem is, do you have enough people to staff to the workload?"
The union contract expired last year, and the city and police union continue to negotiate on new terms. Ryan, the union president, said officers like the extra day off and are reluctant to give it up in contract negotiations. Many other police departments use the shift plan with good results, including Montgomery County and the Maryland State Police.
"It's all in the management," Ryan said.
Davis said he's not categorically against the current shift plan if staffing increases. But he said with current staffing the plan is "irresponsible" and he's trying to negotiate to get out of it.
"I'm not 'anti' any particular shift plan. I'm for a shift plan that works for the citizens and the police officers," Davis said. "If you don't have enough people to staff a shift plan, then it's irresponsible to go into that shift plan."
Staffing is not the only reason overtime spending can mount, said Skinner, the former deputy commissioner. Commanders must also be on the lookout for misuse of overtime, as well as fraud.
"The more overtime you're spending, the more difficult it is to root out fraud or misuse of overtime," Skinner said. "You can create a system with benchmarks and ideas of what units should be spending, and what individual officers should be spending. When people are exceeding those marks, you have to investigate, and investigate thoroughly."
Skinner said audits should be occurring almost every pay cycle. Many officers like to work overtime and earn extra pay, but studies show declining productivity and even health or safety risks.
"There's situations where officers just physically can't work the number of hours," he said.
The recent indictment of seven officers in an elite gun unit on racketeering charges highlighted the potential for fraud. Federal prosecutors say the officers racked up thousands of dollars in overtime pay for hours they did not work. For example, the sergeant in charge of the unit, Wayne Jenkins, allegedly claimed to have worked for a week when he was in Myrtle Beach, S.C. on a family vacation.
"Easy money," another officer, Momodu Gondo allegedly said, according to court documents.
Jenkins, whose annual salary was $85,406, made the most of any of the officers, taking in $83,345 in overtime. Gondo, whose annual salary was $71,412, made the least amount of overtime of any of the indicted officers, taking in more than $29,000.
The officers have pleaded not guilty to the charges and are being held pending trial.
Data show dozens of police employees double their salary each year through overtime, though Skinner said he suspects outright fraud is rare.
Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater and Kevin Rector contributed to this article.