Controlling Police Overtime Costs

For the majority of police departments, it is a constant struggle to control overtime costs.  In policing, overtime is often not a planned activity so controlling it requires  a joint effort between the officers on the street, their supervisors, and the police executive.

The degree to which police departments control their overtime budgets is directly related to budget accountability.

If the attitude of city council or civilian oversight boards is laissez faire (i.e. overtime is viewed as just one of the costs of doing business) and they are willing to approve special appropriations when overtime budgets are exceeded, overtime can spiral out of control.

If, on the other hand, the police departments are held  strictly accountable for their overtime budgets and therefore must be vigilant because overruns will not be covered though special appropriations, controlling the overtime budget takes on more meaning.

Staying on budget can be accomplished in several ways:  First, put in place procedures that govern the granting of overtime and that require overtime be pre-approved.  Second, establish overtime approval guidelines for supervisors.  Third, audit the process to ensure the guidelines are being followed.  Lastly,  hold everyone within the organization, especially the Chief of Police, accountable.

In terms of executive accountability one of the best motivators is knowing that overtime overages will have to be made up from within the existing budget.  If the approved budget is ‘tight’, meaning there are no  inflated accounts from which funds can be diverted if the overtime budget is exceeded, then the executive is motivated to run a ‘tight ship’.

When police executives are faced with budget shortfalls they have few options:  they can either cut the budget by reducing staffing (layoffs), or they can increase revenue.

Opportunities to generate revenue are limited.  The main revenue source for police is traffic offence fines.

In 2008, when Winnipeg police faced a budget short fall, offence notices under the photo radar program (i.e. mobile photo radar, the positioning of which is manually controlled) jumped 59% from 74,442 in 2007 to 118,692 in 2008.  In the same year static photo radar (red light cameras) dropped 21%.  It was this unseemly increase of 59% that changed the minds of many Winnipeggers about photo radar.  Many no longer saw it as a safety initiative but rather as a cash grab – a cash grab orchestrated by the Police Service to cover its lack of control on overtime spending.

The Minneapolis Police Department provides a good case study on dealing with overtime expenditure.

In 2010 the Minneapolis Police Department was facing a budget shortfall of $4.3 million, most of it related to overtime expenditures.  With no special appropriation to cover the shortfall,  police in Minneapolis shed civilian staff and delayed the hiring of police officers to balance the budget.

In 2011 Minneapolis Police implemented tighter overtime control, as recommended by the City Auditor.   Despite the  tornado which struck Minneapolis last summer,  a Presidential visit and the Occupy Protest,  Minneapolis only spent $2.8 million of its $5.3 million overtime budget in 2011.

According to Minneapolis Police the overtime saving resulted from a concerted department wide effort to rein in costs.  The lay offs the previous year added a degree of urgency to those efforts.

The following is an excerpt from a recent article in the Minneapolis StarTribune:

Deputy Chief Scott Gerlicher said Thursday that the overtime savings came about after a department-wide effort to rein in costs, particularly because the earlier overruns had resulted in layoffs.

“It really hits home when you have police officers not able to work,” he said. “Everyone does whatever they can to cut costs and do their part.”

The department budgeted $5.3 million for overtime in 2011, but spent $2.8 million — the lowest amount paid out for police overtime in a decade. The 2011 Police Department budget of $136.3 million amounted to 10 percent of the city’s total expenses.

The city’s audit, issued last April by a revamped city audit arm, did not find evidence that overtime had been misused, but it did recommend better controls to help supervisors control it.

Gerlicher said that discretionary overtime has been cut back, but that it was impossible to reduce other overtime costs, such as court hearings that officers are required to attend or incidents that occur late in a shift.

New reporting controls do allow for more real-time observation of overtime costs, said Gerlicher.

“Sometimes it’s just a matter of tweaking the way we do business,” he said. “We’re able to do a more rapid job of identifying issues and addressing them more quickly.”

The department also planned ahead for special events, like President Obama’s visit last year, and used officers from other areas of the city if possible rather than calling in extra officers on overtime, he said.

Investigations that required officers working overtime still went forward, said Gerlicher. “Those are still a high priority for us,” he said.

Controlling spending is a better approach to meeting overtime budget goals than increasing revenues,  such as those from mobile photo radar.  Spending controls demonstrate sound management practices  and are sustainable while increases on the revenue side are unsustainable and only serve to erode public confidence in police.