After 8-year battle, Minneapolis may finally gain major budget victory in controlling police overtime

It’s a first victory in a controversy that has pitted the Minneapolis City Council’s budget-watchers against Minneapolis Police Department brass for eight years. After several years of City Council pushing and police pushback, the department has cut spending on overtime by 20 percent so far in 2010.

It may sound like a modest number, but it’s a major victory in a public policy tug-of-war that’s common in police departments nationwide.

Properly managed, police overtime saves taxpayers money. Because of the high cost of fringe benefits, the extra pay is cheaper than hiring more officers, who then might sit idle in a year with relatively little crime.

Complicated rules and recordkeeping
But complicated contractual rules and a Byzantine recordkeeping system can make it hard for administrators to distinguish reasonable uses of time from the wasteful: Did officers earn overtime because a serious crime kept them on the job, or were they paid to be on standby for several hours to testify in a traffic case?

Adding to the confusion, under the thicket of clauses in police contracts, the payment of overtime doesn’t necessarily mean an officer worked excess hours. Overtime also is paid for horse patrol, canine duty, detox van duty and a host of other activities.

Overtime long has been viewed as a perk by many department officers, inflating top earners’ paychecks in years past by as much as $65,000 a year. Because overtime is so lucrative, there’s been little incentive for officers to cooperate with efforts to cut back.

That figure is about twice as much as was paid to most of the 25 officers who put in the most overtime hours in 2009, according to a MinnPost examination of city records.

The exceptions: Last year, homicide investigator Darcy Klund received $49,000 in overtime pay, making his annual compensation slightly less than $137,000. His colleague in the homicide division, Christopher Gaiters, got $43,000 in overtime, bringing his pay for the year to nearly $125,000.

Because it’s important for investigators to work as many hours as possible in the immediate aftermath of a murder, homicide investigators are usually any police department’s top overtime earners.

In terms of overall compensation, Chief Tim Dolan was the department’s top earner last year at $147,000. A dozen more earned more than $125,000, while 72 earned more than $100,000.

Contrast that with 2007, when Sgt. Gerhard Wehr, also in homicide, was paid $180,000, or twice Mayor R.T. Rybak’s pay at the time.

Changes limiting costs but also affecting services
In terms of the larger picture, what has changed?

“They’re [department leaders] really trying to be forceful about keeping overtime in check,” said Council President Barb Johnson.

Council President Barb Johnson
Council President Barb Johnson

To stay within 2010’s $2.3 million overtime allocation, police department administrators have eliminated virtually all discretionary overtime, changed the length of watch commander shifts and have made commanders accountable for approval of all overtime. As a result, some investigations now take longer, and fewer community events are staffed.

Since 1996, the police department’s overtime allocation has ranged from $1.7 million to $3.3 million but has hovered in the $2.5 million range. That amount typically represents about 2.5 percent of the department’s budget — a smaller portion than comparable cities, according to police department reports.

That argument is somewhat misleading, however. During the last decade, the department has exceeded its overtime budget allocation in every year but 2003. In 2006, the department spent nearly $6 million, nearly twice its OT budget. The following year, it spent even more, even without counting overtime worked in the wake of the I-35W bridge collapse, which was largely reimbursed by the federal government. 

In 2007, after it had to authorize an additional $750,000 for overtime during the first half of the year, the City Council’s Ways and Means Committee began requesting regular budget reports from the department. Council members also started asking pointed questions about hours worked.

That same year, a race discrimination lawsuit filed against the department by five African-American officers drew attention to the issue. The men — three lieutenants and two sergeants — complained that minorities were locked out of the assignments most likely to involve overtime.

“Certain special assignments … such as [Emergency Response Unit], Canine, and Honor Guard have greater access to overtime details than others,” they alleged. “The vast majority of officers who get these assignments are white. The assignment process is largely controlled by white officers. This, too, results in a disproportionate amount of overtime compensation going to white officers.”

In a settlement reached a year ago, the city paid the officers a total of $750,000.

Detailed work rules outline OT pay
Any attempt to sort justifiable overtime from waste is complicated by the union contract, which specifies additional compensation for numerous activities that are not necessarily extra hours of work. Any hour on the job after a shift has ended is paid at one and a half times an officer’s hourly wage.

But police are also paid a shift differential that is accounted for as overtime for working any shift outside of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., as well as for staffing the detox van, canine or horse unit, for training other officers and for holidays. Overtime must be paid any time a shift changes.

Confusing things further, many of these supplemental payments are recorded in department records as overtime. As a result, department documents show some officers working nearly 5,000 hours, or two and a half times as many as a full-time workload.

After the overtime cost for the investigations, the largest category of overtime is court pay. When officers are required to appear in court outside their normal schedule, they automatically accrue four hours of overtime, regardless of how long they are there and whether they testify or not. Court pay is fairly standard because so many officers work odd hours only to get called in during regular business hours when courts are operating.

This category is particularly frustrating, given the difficulty of predicting whether a trial for which an officer has been subpoenaed will actually take place. Prosecutors have worked with police to reduce the number of officers they put on standby to testify.

Court pay has been the subject of overtime scandals in other cities. With lax scrutiny, officers have sometimes listed several co-workers as witnesses on their reports so that as many possible get court pay.

Minneapolis police must now have prior approval to incur overtime. Supervisors’ authorizations are monitored and overtime data submitted along with other budget numbers reported to the city council four times a year.

“Now they are very constrained in what they can do,” said Council President Johnson.

In May, Deputy Chief Scott Gerlicher offered good news when he made the department’s quarterly report to the Ways and Means Committee. Coupled with another cost-saving measure — a campaign to get officers to turn off squad cars rather than letting them idle — the department is on track to under-spend its 2010 budget by about $1.25 million, he said.

Good as that news is, Johnson was quick to note that it’s important to understand that those funds may be needed if the uptick in crime seen so far this year continues. “Particularly in years where you’ve got a lot of crime going on, you have scenes where you need lots of officers,” she said.

“Overtime is cheaper than hiring more cops,” she said. “There are no more benefits, which are probably 20 percent of their salary. And you have much more flexibility. In times where demand is low, you don’t have a bunch of downtime.”

Beth Hawkins writes about criminal justice, schools and other topics.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Matthew Hauck on 06/07/2010 - 12:34 am.

    “Cases go from red to black by way of green”

  2. Submitted by Clare LaFond on 06/07/2010 - 10:53 pm.

    Kudos to the City Council.

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