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Oakland police overtime payments straining city’s budget

(Pictured above: Demonstrators fill Broadway near Oakland Police Department headquarters on May 29, 2020 during a protest over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.  Photo by Beth LaBerge/KQED)

This story appeared on KQED on May 19, 2021.

A version of the story was first published on Oakland North on April 28, 2021.

By Noah Baustin (’22)

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year would nearly double the amount of money for police overtime, increasing the city’s law enforcement spending by almost 8% — even as city leaders last summer pledged to slash the department’s budget amid widespread racial justice protests.

Schaaf’s proposed budget for the 2021-23 budget cycle, which she presented last Monday to the City Council, includes about $61 million over the next two years for police overtime — up from roughly $32 million in the last two-year budget cycle.

That would increase total police spending from about $317 million this fiscal year to $341 million starting in July — or roughly 41% of the city’s general fund — and then up to nearly $352 million the year after.

Schaaf’s proposal, which she says “aligns with historical spending,” comes after a year of already hefty police overtime expenditures. In the 2020 calendar year, the city spent more than $35 million on police overtime, enabling over 100 officers to more than double their base salaries, which raised total police personnel costs well above $250 million.

Overtime Windfall

That year, 73 officers and 63 sergeants earned more than Schaaf herself, whose own compensation package — including pay and benefits — was $337,140, according to city salary data obtained through a public records request.

Topping that list was Officer Timothy S. Dolan, who was the highest compensated employee in the department and the second-highest in all of city government. On top of his reported 2020 base salary of $134,080, Dolan earned more than $301,000 in overtime pay. That put his total compensation package, including health care and payments the city made into his pension fund, at $589,809.

The city has investigated the possibility that some of the highest earning OPD employees were taking advantage of the overtime system, said Oakland City Administrator Ed Reiskin. But he said no abuse has been found, as far as he is aware. Rather, he pointed to short staffing as the primary driver of overtime spending.

“My concern isn’t one officer making a lot of money. That’s not inherently problematic,” Reiskin said. “If people are working so much that they can’t be effective and work safely, that’s my concern.”

Last year, 64 OPD employees made over $100,000 in overtime alone.

Records show that many OPD employees brought in significant portions of their income through overtime work, in addition to lump sum payments and other types of compensation. The data show that 107 OPD employees were paid more than double their base salary in 2020, including 17 who were paid more than triple, and five who were paid about quadruple.

That includes police officer Malcolm E. Miller, who brought home $362,000 last year (not including benefits), though his base salary was only $82,925.

Miller, Dolan and all other police personnel named in this story did not respond to emails requesting comment. OPD also would not comment and declined our requests to interview the officers.

‘You’re Making a Choice’

Sgt. Barry Donelan, president of the Oakland Police Officers’ Association, said logging this many overtime hours suggests that these top earners volunteered for many additional assignments. The department regularly sends out emails to staff looking for officers willing to work overtime on special details or at public events, like Oakland A’s games, he noted.

“When you get to those kinds of numbers, you’re making a choice,” Donelan said.

The city has policies intended to prevent officers from working too much. For example, OPD’s overtime policy states that department members who are ordered to work beyond their regular shifts are entitled to eight hours of rest before their next assignment begins. Members who work voluntary overtime are also supposed to have at least eight hours of rest between work periods, unless otherwise authorized by a commander. They are also supposed to take one day off each week, but a commander can override that.

The overtime policy places the burden of tracking rest periods on the officers, who are supposed to notify their managers.

Donelan said that OPD management waives overtime restrictions to meet demands for services, especially during periods of frequent mass demonstrations, like the Black Lives Matter protests last summer after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

Those same protests led to mounting pressure to scale back police funding. In response, city leaders formed a task force to rethink the department’s operations and make recommendations for cutting its annual budget by $150 million — or roughly half.

History of Spending Over Budget

A 2019 city auditor’s investigation into OPD’s overtime use found that many officers worked a staggering number of off-duty hours. The report noted that police officers in San Francisco were not allowed to work more than 520 overtime hours each year. But in Oakland, 30% of officers exceeded that limit in the 2017-2018 fiscal year, when 24 sworn officers worked more than 1,249 overtime hours, and one member logged at least 2,600 hours.

The auditor recommended OPD establish an annual limit on how many overtime hours employees can work in one year. But the Schaaf administration disagreed, and when OPD implemented its new overtime policy in December, it did not include an annual limit.

For over a decade, OPD has consistently spent millions more than the amount allotted by the city — much driven by overtime hours and other personnel spending. For example, in the 2019-2020 fiscal year, OPD spent a total of nearly $338 million, according to the city’s comprehensive annual financial analysis. And in a report to the City Council last October, Oakland Finance Director Margaret O’Brien wrote that OPD exceeded its general purpose fund budget by more than $32 million.

And in recent years, the department has regularly paid out more than twice as much for overtime as the council has budgeted.

As OPD continued to exceed its overtime budget in 2020, the city’s revenue plummeted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting O’Brien to write in a February memo that the city was “experiencing a financial crisis.”

If the city continued to spend at the rate it did in 2020, she cautioned, it would drain its emergency reserves. “This situation puts the City in jeopardy of being unable to pay for its daily operations,” O’Brien wrote.

She added that “personnel costs in the Police Department (OPD) is the primary area of overspending in the City’s budget.”

In 2020, the city spent over $257 million on police department employee compensation, including base salaries, overtime, benefits, and other pay. That made up over 35% of citywide personnel spending that year.

Oakland Councilmember at-Large Rebecca Kaplan said that last year’s OPD spending is the latest example of how Schaaf and Reiskin disregard spending restrictions laid out in the city’s budget and adopted by the council. They have given some city departments more than they were budgeted, and others less than they were budgeted, skirting the public budget process, she added.

“Not only are they spending money that wasn’t authorized, and not only is this a violation of democracy, but the extra things that the administrator has been giving [OPD] without council approval are largely things that have nothing to do with public safety,” Kaplan said.

She pointed out that OPD’s overtime spending was particularly egregious in 2020, blaming the department’s heavy-handed response to Black Lives Matter protests in June.

In a December 2020 memo, then-interim Police Chief Susan Manheimer, who has since been replaced by LeRonne Armstrong, wrote that the department spent nearly $2.5 million on protest activity “associated with Minneapolis Solidarity” by the end of June, and another $1.28 million on protest activity throughout the rest of the summer.

The Steep Costs of Backfilling 

Demonstrations, however, weren’t the biggest reason for overtime spending last year. Manheimer’s December memo shows that backfill and shift extensions, which are largely used to maintain minimum patrol staffing of 35 officers per shift, had a much larger price tag. Those two categories cost the city $12.8 million in fiscal year 2019-20 and another $9.8 million so far in 2020-21.

Reiskin, the city administrator, said that OPD’s reliance on overtime to maintain minimum staffing levels speaks to a core problem: The department is too understaffed to fulfill all the services the city is demanding of its police. The city is budgeted to have 786 sworn personnel, which he noted is significantly lower than in other cities of comparable population and level of violent crime. And that, he said, forces OPD to fill in the gaps by assigning overtime.

Further compounding the problem, the department last year had 47 sworn vacancies and 62 professional staff vacancies, Manheimer wrote in her memo.

Additionally, an uptick in homicides this year prompted Armstrong to recently create a special division on violent crime, which he filled by reassigning 60 officers.

In a March memo to the City Council, Armstrong wrote that as the department struggles to maintain its minimum patrol staff at 35 officers per shift, there is little capacity to assign officers to special assignments on their regular shift time. For that reason, he said, the department has “become almost entirely reliant on overtime” to address many specialized police details. That includes response teams focused on sideshows, areas with high levels of violent crime, homicide operations, Lake Merritt patrols, and traffic investigations, he said.

Many overtime assignments come from superiors as orders, Donelan, the union president, said. “The gripe I get more than anything is the guy who doesn’t want to work overtime,” he said.

Donelan explained that overtime orders can come in different forms. A watch commander might hold an officer on the clock after realizing that not enough officers are coming in for the next shift. Or the chief might order a “one call” phone notification, in which an officer is reached at home and ordered to report to work.

Comp Time

The 2019 city audit identified another big reason for the OPD’s glut in overtime: Officers can choose to receive compensatory time off (comp time) instead of money as reimbursement for working overtime. Since overtime work is compensated at time and a half, an officer working 10 hours of overtime can elect to receive 15 hours of comp time. When an officer takes that paid time off, another officer has to fill in, most likely using more overtime.

The 2019 audit reported that OPD officers are capped at 300 hours of comp time, the highest limit of any major city in California. Despite previous warnings from the city auditor about the comp time issue, the city did not address OPD’s high comp time accrual limit during its most recent negotiation with the police officers union, which went into effect in December 2018. Since comp time accrual is part of the city’s agreement with the union, this system is set in stone until the next contract negotiation in 2024.

The audit noted that one specific officer was mostly responsible for determining the number of officers needed to staff events. It didn’t name the officer, but said he regularly assigned himself to work special events, and that he was the department’s second-highest overtime earner for five years in a row.

In December, the Schaaf administration implemented service cuts across departments to get a handle on the city’s overspending. Many of those cuts were to OPD overtime work, including sideshow enforcement, as well as some homicide and ceasefire operations, with personnel re-assigned to supplement understaffed patrol squads.

Those cuts also included a reduction of police patrols in Oakland’s Chinatown shortly before a streak of attacks against Asian Americans in Oakland and other cities across the country.

On April 12, the City Council passed a resolution to use federal relief funding to reverse some of the service cuts. After a four-month hiatus, the city said it would restore funding for OPD community safety ambassadors in Chinatown and other neighborhoods, foot-patrol officers and ceasefire operations. This came amid a wave of violence that hit the city in the first quarter of 2021, resulting in 34 homicides, triple the number recorded in the first quarter of 2020.

“The challenge within the police department is that everything every day is the highest community priority,” Donelan said. “Our service load is continuing to rise.”

That could change if the City Council adopts the recommendations of the Reimagining Public Safety Taskforce that it created after last summer’s protests. Among the task force’s proposals are shifting staffing from police to civilian workers for a range of services, including responses to mental health calls and internal affairs investigations.

An Uncertain Future

Schaaf’s proposed $341 million police budget for next year is a far cry from the City Council’s pledge last summer to cut OPD funding in half.

The proposed budget would fund six police recruiting academies in the next two years, bringing additional officers onto the force — a move Chief Armstrong argues will reduce overtime expenses by increasing the department’s capacity to cover assignments on regularly assigned time. It would also transfer OPD’s vehicle enforcement unit to the city’s transportation department, as recommended by the task force, and add $2.6 million in funding over two years to launch a program to dispatch community responders, instead of police, to non-violent emergency calls.

However, the proposed budget does not incorporate other key recommendations of the task force, including staffing the 911 call center with employees from other departments.

Over the next six weeks, the City Council will decide what changes to make to Schaaf’s proposal before adopting the final two-year city budget.

“I fully agree with the Reimagining Public Safety Taskforce recommendation that we need to cap OPD overtime,” said Councilmember Loren Taylor, who co-chairs the task force, at the May 10 council meeting.

“What I want to do is roll up sleeves and figure out what is a realistic overtime to hold ourselves to,” he added. “That’s something we have never been able to do because we have never been honest about what past overtime expenditures were and therefore, we were setting ourselves up for failure the entire time.”