Monthly City Council meetings on police overtime are about 15 years overdue

There was something very familiar about the news last month that the Baltimore City Council had to approve a $21 million appropriation to cover police department overtime far in excess of what was budgeted. Perhaps it was because The Sun had run essentially the same story a year before when the department was blowing through almost $1 million in overtime spending every week en route to a final tally that was tens of millions more than the $17 million the council had approved for that purpose.

Or maybe it was the story in April of 2016 about how the department was scrambling to redeploy detectives and administrators to patrol beats to cope with overtime spending that was projected to hit $49 million, or triple what had been budgeted. It could also have been one from 2014 in which the police commissioner at the time, Anthony W. Batts, argued that he could fix runaway overtime costs by cutting 212 vacant positions and redeploying forces with a smarter schedule. That year, OT was a mere $7 million over budget. Then there was 2013, when the city did the same thing it’s doing now, which is to use better-than-expected tax collections to cover worse-than-expected overtime. We had another story in 2011, when police overtime was up 40 percent over the previous year in response to what officials at the time said was drastic understaffing. Back in 2009, Baltimore sought to cut back on police overtime amid the fiscal woes of the great recession, but it still spent more than budgeted. In 2008, after then-Mayor Sheila Dixon warned that the department “didn’t have a blank check” for overtime, it still went $17 million over budget. And that was an improvement over 2007, when the department spent more than twice its overtime budget for the year in just seven months.

The story this week about members of the City Council raising a stink about overtime had a familiar ring to it, too. The council was plenty steamed about all the money the O’Malley administration (that is, the Mayor Martin O’Malley administration; our former governor was still a future governor at that point) was spending on police overtime back in 2006. Even the idea of holding monthly oversight hearings to monitor not just crime fighting but also overtime spending isn’t new, either. Councilman Bill Henry pushed something similar in 2005.

A couple of conclusions can be drawn from all of this.

First, the amount the city budgets for police overtime is and always has been pure fiction. Why anyone is surprised at the end of the year that the department has spent more than planned is a mystery to us. In the fiscal year that just ended, Baltimore budgeted $16 million for police overtime. The department has not spent less than $25 million for it since at least 2012, and there was no reason to believe there would be any change in the factor officials now say is driving the problem — the combination of a poorly conceived shift schedule and substantial understaffing.

Second, the culture of overtime in the department is toxic. Police complain on the one hand about mandatory overtime, which they say (quite rightly) puts officers and the public at risk. On the other hand, testimony in the Gun Trace Task Force case revealed the extent to which mid-level department officials used unearned overtime as “internal currency” to reward officers. The abuse of the system by GTTF members was nothing new; a half-dozen officers were disciplined in 2007 for overtime abuse, including some who managed to game the system to earn more than the mayor.

The city is attempting to do something about this. The Law Department is auditing police overtime (partially in response to requirements in the city’s post-Freddie Gray consent decree with the federal government). The police department announced earlier this year that it would implement biometric scans when officers clock in and out to cut down on fraud. Mayor Catherine Pugh’s administration has made a push to recruit more new officers and continues to fight for changes to the ill-conceived shift schedule.

But mayors have been trying to do something about police overtime spending for years, and no matter how many times a budget director vows that next year the department will live within its means, it never happens. Our only question about the idea of monthly oversight hearings by the council is whether they’re often enough.

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