The Baltimore Police Department has increased overtime spending over the past year amid a struggle to fill vacancies, according to data obtained by The Baltimore Sun.
The city spent 40 percent more in the fiscal year through June compared with the year before, and overtime spending so far this fiscal year is on track to increase by another 40 percent, according to statistics provided by the department in response to a public information act request.
Efforts to rein in overtime had been a point of pride for police, who contend they have been reducing crime on a leaner budget. Overtime is used to fill patrol cars during staffing shortages, and it's used by police as a tool to help flood neighborhoods with officers to quell crime outbreaks.
City officials said that officers are working more overtime hours because of staffing shortages; the department has nearly 200 vacancies among its sworn strength of about 3,100 officers. In addition to the vacancies, other officers are on medical leave or have been suspended.
Sheryl Goldstein, director of the mayor's office on criminal justice, noted that the department spent less on overtime when it was more fully staffed. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has proposed hiring 300 officers, a proposal that has met with opposition. Baltimore has more officers than many cities of similar size.
"There's a clear correlation between overtime spending and vacancies," Goldstein said.
But even with the increased overtime spending, police officers report that some districts remain short-staffed. And police union President Robert F. Cherry said the rising use of overtime shows the city "doesn't have a long-term plan." He has criticized Rawlings-Blake's proposal to hire hundreds of additional officers, saying he favors a redeployment of existing resources and salary increases for officers already on the payroll.
"Overtime is a necessity in any major city, but the question is always, 'How do you contain it from getting out of hand?'" Cherry said.
City Council members said they want the Police Department to do a better job of staying within its budget.
"Overtime is always a problem, and we've asked this commissioner and prior commissioners that if they think they're going to need that much overtime, put it in the budget so we're prepared for it," said City Councilman James Kraft, chair of the council's public safety committee.
Recent administrations have had different views on overtime spending. Under Mayor Martin O'Malley, the department regularly exceeded budgeted projections as commanders worked to control crime and make up for attrition. Then Mayor Sheila Dixon pressured the department to rein in spending, resulting in sharp declines that still exceeded budgeted amounts.
Officials projected in January 2010 that they would spend just $14.2 million on overtime, according to figures presented to Rawlings-Blake's transition committee as she prepared to move into mayor's office.
But the department went on to spend $16.7 million that year, a figure that jumped to $23 million the next fiscal year. In the first two months of the current fiscal year, police have spent $5.1 million on overtime, compared with $3.7 million during the same time last year.
According to the most recently available figures, the overall crime rate is unchanged from a year ago; violent crime is down 7 percent, while gun crime is up 6 percent.
In the most recent budget, Rawlings-Blake increased Police Department spending by $4 million to $353 million — less than what the department said was needed to maintain last year's level of service. In addition to filling vacancies, Rawlings-Blake has also pledged to hire additional officers, a proposal her challengers criticized during the Democratic primary election.
Rawlings-Blake spokesman Ryan O'Doherty criticized Cherry's opposition to Rawlings-Blake's plan to expand the department, saying such dissension "makes it difficult to attract police officers to the police force when we don't have union leadership that is on board with that goal."
Goldstein and O'Doherty said the city has done a better job in recent years of making realistic budget estimates for overtime. After budgeting $9 million and regularly exceeding that amount for years, the city budgeted $17 million last year and $18.5 million this year.
Though the department outspent last year's figure by $6 million, Goldstein said it was largely able to cover the difference from money unspent on the vacant positions.
According to more detailed overtime data provided to The Sun by police sources, each district has spent more than $50,000 in overtime each two-week pay period so far this fiscal year, with the exception of the Southeastern District. The Central, Eastern and Southern have spent in excess of $80,000 in recent pay periods.
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In 2007, with police overtime spending soaring and under a directive from Dixon, commanders limited overtime spending for each of the city's nine police districts to $30,000 per pay period.
City officials said those statistics include overtime spending covered by grant money or reimbursed by federal agencies or private entities. The officials provided overall totals that they said only impact the city's budget.
The data provided by sources show how the overtime money is being spent across the department, including by district, unit and shift.
The Southeastern District spent $165,156 in overtime in July and August, far below the average of the nine districts, which was $268,680.
"The demand in my district for police officers has been increasing exponentially," said Kraft, the Southeast Baltimore councilman.
The records show the department's Violent Crime Impact section, which is composed of plainclothes officers working in the city's most violent areas, has received $570,800 in overtime pay this fiscal year, while the Homeland Security Division has received $310,762. The Detective Division received $1.18 million, including $268,500 to the homicide unit and $41,800 to the citywide robbery unit.