Baltimore police overtime continues to rise as officials raise concerns about officer health

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Christine Zhang
Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — As Baltimore police staffing shortages kept rising in recent years, officers kept picking up the slack, in some cases doubling their salaries.

Officers often averaged more than 12 hours a day, every day, for weeks on end, according to data obtained through a public records request.

The long hours raise concerns from police and city leaders about the potential physical and emotional dangers — to the public and to the officers themselves — that experts say go with the stress of police work and little rest. And they renew questions from some elected officials about the potential for fraud, as when federal prosecutors convicted officers of the Gun Trace Task Force for, among other things, “routinely [submitting] false and fraudulent individual overtime reports.”

Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, who took office in March, has worked to rein in the hours and improve oversight, both for fiscal reasons and to ensure officer wellness. He’s changed policy in recent months to keep officers from recording more than 32 hours of overtime a week, with early results showing steep declines in both overtime hours and costs.

“We saw pretty commonly officers greatly exceeding their limit,” Harrison said in an interview. “There were no measures in place because nobody was asking. It wasn’t being tracked,” he said.

Police spokesman Matt Jablow Jablow said in a statement that the department has uncovered “historical waste and some instances of pushing the boundaries,” but is taking corrective steps through new policies and improved technology.

Most of the overtime comes from legitimate shifts being worked by officers in a department that is hundreds of officers below its ideal staffing levels, Harrison and city leaders say. Records show that the most extreme examples centered on about 50 officers who routinely earned 30 or 40 hours of overtime a week, on top of their regular patrol shifts.

Nationwide studies show that working such long hours and stressful duties take a significant toll on the health of officers and increase the likelihood they will be accused of misconduct or excessive force by members of the public.

Governing magazine published findings from a study of the King County Sheriff’s Office in the state of Washington that showed just one “additional hour of overtime per week increased the chances that an officer would be involved in a use-of-force incident the following week by 2.7%, and increased the odds of ethics violations by 3.1%.”

The city has had difficulty tracking the number of hours worked because it has been slow to embrace new technologies, relying instead on an outdated system of paper overtime slips, Harrison said. That’s caught the attention of city leaders for years. Although all interviewed say Harrison has taken great strides, they want to see continued progress.

“When overtime was at its peak, there was definitely a series of alarms that were going off,” said Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, chairman of the public safety committee. “And, ‘Are people actually working those hours?' became a topic of questioning during monthly council oversight hearings, Schleifer said.

Council President Brandon Scott, who previously chaired the public safety committee, said he first raised concerns of excessive overtime in 2012.

"It’s always been about the entirety of the problem, not just, ‘Is there fraud?’ but having people work the amount of hours they were working was unsafe for them and the citizens of Baltimore.”

Harrison and his staff said the new policies are designed to save taxpayer money and make sure exhausted cops are not patrolling city streets.

“The overtime policy ... was put into effect to ensure that officers weren’t working too much and, therefore, putting themselves and those they serve at risk,” Jablow said in a written response to questions. “Healthy officers result in higher-performing officers and lower crime.”

City Councilman Eric Costello, who chairs the council’s Budget and Appropriations Committee, said he has been pleased with the steady reduction in overtime hours and costs under Harrison. “This was significant," he said.

But Costello said the department will continue to see high levels of overtime — “a necessity and reality” — until it can bolster its ranks.

“I would like to see the department adequately staffed. We’re making progress on that,” he said.

Harrison has taken steps to increase oversight, mandating that supervisors approve overtime beforehand. He’s also making overtime a topic in his weekly Comstat meetings with commanders.

“The ultimate goal is a technological solution that largely removes any room for human error or opportunity for abuse, and provides the kind of system that we need,” Jablow, the police spokesman, said. “That solution is a new payroll system that is being implemented citywide and that is scheduled to go live at BPD this fall.”

In Baltimore and elsewhere, department leaders are weighing the concerns of overtime and officer wellness.

“They’re human beings like the rest of us, but they have a job that gives them authority the rest of us don’t have,” said Justin Nix, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “I think we’re starting to give it its due attention."

Other departments have similar restrictions on the number of hours an officer can earn each week. For example, the Boston Police Department has restricted officers from working more than 90 hours a week, and the Metropolitan Police Department in D.C. limits officers to 98 hours a week.

One complaint from Baltimore officers for many years has been about “drafting," or forced overtime that was identified as a concern in the consent decree reached between the city and U.S. Department of Justice in 2017, as well as the police officers’ union. Harrison’s new policy has reduced drafting, helping compliance with requirements that the department create a finalized staffing plan to ensure a “sufficient number of officers in patrol in each district, without needing to resort to drafting, except in unforeseeable circumstances.”

Since Harrison instituted new rules last year limiting the number of hours officers can work, costs and hours are dropping, city budgeting data shows.

Former Commissioner Darryl De Sousa attempted to introduce controls on overtime use but backed off after complaints from officers and commanders, a 2018 city audit said. The same audit said a previous overtime policy was “regularly ignored in practice.”

Harrison is determined to keep his policy intact.

“It’s decreasing because we are managing now and we are managing it well," Harrison said. “We don’t want officers overworking themselves. No more than 32 hours a week, and at least a seven-hour break. That’s about officer wellness."