Getting a grip on police overtime

New records detail how the Baltimore police department is struggling to deploy the number of officers it says it needs to keep the public safe.

It’s not just second marriages that represent the triumph of hope over experience. Consider the Baltimore Police Department and its repeated and unsuccessful attempts to stay within its overtime budget.

The city budgeted $16 million for police overtime this fiscal year, and by March had already spent more than $36 million. Meanwhile, the budget for the year that begins July 1 is $20 million, which the finance director quite optimistically has said he expects the police will not exceed.


Is there a method to this madness — or at least a way out of it?

No one, of course, thinks overshooting the overtime budget by millions of dollars is a good thing, fiscally, operationally or for the officers themselves, already working a stressful job even under a schedule that allows for adequate rest and regular hours. Additionally, as the Gun Trace Task Force scandal clearly demonstrated, overtime is ripe for abuse, with members of that specialized unit found to have claimed pay for hours they hadn’t actually worked.

At essence, the overtime issue is an under-staffing issue. Mayor Catherine Pugh has said the force is 700 people short of its 2,800 authorized positions — due to previous hiring freezes and normal attrition, not to mention the departures after the 2015 unrest. While the mayor has committed to filling out police ranks, it can take more than a year for recruits to get through training and background checks before they’re patrol-ready.

One way to get more recruits is to ease some of the current standards for acceptance, The Abell Foundation argued in a 2017 report — specifically, bans on applicants with previous marijuana use. In the face of changing laws and attitudes, the state last year allowed departments to take recruits who hadn’t used the drug in the past three years. Then Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis welcomed the move, saying the previous restriction — more than 20 lifetime uses of the drug, or five since turning 21 — had been the top reason applicants were turned away. The Abell report, written by Nate Loewentheil, now a candidate for the House of Delegates, argues for lifting the state standard entirely and leaving the matter up to local jurisdictions as 42 other states do.

This is not to say that the department should drop the marijuana restriction — there should be more study of the issue first. But rather, it should be part of an overall review of recruiting standards to find any other barriers that may be standing in the way of Baltimore having a continual pipeline of officers.

As with any hiring during a time of low unemployment, the best recruits likely have their pick of other departments or in the private sector. And in fact, many police forces across the country are similarly grappling with their own staffing and overtime issues. Boston, for example, a city comparable in size to Baltimore, spent nearly $67 million in police overtime last year — although surely its sports fans took comfort in the fact that at least some of that was due to hosting a Super Bowl championship parade. It went through an audit of its overtime spending several years ago, which found that the department exercised little control over how it was assigned.

As it turns out, the city solicitor is currently auditing the police department’s overtime, as a result of a lawsuit filed by the officers’ union alleging the city miscalculated how overtime is paid out. While the results of that audit may not be made public, a full accounting of the department’s overtime practices should be done. You might even say it’s long overdue.