As Seattle pored over its police department budget this year, one thing that stuck out like a sore thumb was $30 million in planned overtime worked into the department’s $409 million budget. A City Auditor report revealed rampant abuse and the great cost of the overtime system in 2016, a workgroup report confirmed the issue persisted in 2018, and a recent investigation in The Seattle Times still couldn’t get answers on why the problem had worsened.

As one might expect, a department with $30 million in planned overtime isn’t exactly careful in how to spend it. That number has escalated out of control over the last 15 years. In 2006, SPD spent about $13 million on overtime, but that has more than doubled since.

SPD overtime expenditures from 2006 to 2015. (Office of City Auditor graph with SPD data)

The reaction of Mayor Jenny Durkan and the Seattle Police Department (SPD) so far has been to promise imminent improvements to the record-keeping and payroll system. Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz also announced a plan to shift 100 officers to patrol by pulling them off special units–exactly which ones hasn’t been spelled out.

SPD has claimed the increase in patrol officers will lessen the need for overtime, but that remains unclear. SPD’s move to put detectives back on patrol may end up accelerating attrition if senior officers are not interested in a return to patrol work. Vacant positions would likely increase the need for overtime–at least if SPD refuses to shift its deployment strategy.

Last month, Durkan vetoed the city council’s budget rebalancing package that would have cut 100 officer positions, primarily though attrition. She argued that the cuts were too deep and that the Navigation Team, which conducts homeless sweeps, was essential. The city council may override the veto next week.

The overtime issue exposes the incredibly lopsided terms of the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) contract. Mayor Durkan negotiated and shepherded the current contract through city council in 2018, lavishing on more perks like retroactive pay increases, on-going pay increases, signing bonuses, and so forth.

That contract expires at year’s end. This time, SPOG won’t benefit from MLK County Labor Council membership during this upcoming negotiation. The influential body expelled them in June.

A bad police contract

The terms of SPOG’s contract thwart efforts to ensure accountability and control costs. The contract guarantees:

  • Three-hour minimum for any overtime pay, meaning a significant portion of claimed overtime hours were not actually physically worked;
  • Standby pay just for being on call;
  • Officer allowance to clock up to 90 hours per week–just shy of 13 per day;
  • Officer ability to clock up to 12 hours of overtime per day while taking vacation days; and
  • Lavish pensions—often six figure compensation that continues into retirement.

Meanwhile, the Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) shoddy accounting practices mean that:

  • Overtime pay is tracked in a separate paper system meanwhile standard hours are electronically entered, making it difficult to monitor mistakes or false reporting.
  • Timesheet audits are time consuming.
  • There’s no automatic system for catching errors.

This is not a new issue, as Seattle Times reporters Daniel Gilbert, Daniel Beekman, and Manuel Villa highlighted in their excellent article on the report.

SPD has struggled for years to monitor its overtime costs, which initially were budgeted at about $30 million this year. The city auditor’s office in 2016 cited numerous lapses in SPD’s policies and procedures governing extra pay, including identifying 400 potential duplicate overtime payments totaling more than $160,000 in 2014. The auditor suggested, and SPD endorsed, an automated system that would flag errors or inappropriate use of overtime.

Four years later, that system is still not in place. SPD says it is expected to go live “within the next year.”

The Seattle Times, September 1, 2020

New technology may not fix much; SPD is already failing to correct even glaring issues. There’re discrepancies over how many hours Ron Morgan Willis–SPD’s highest paid officer at $414,543 in 2019 earnings–actually worked: “Adding to the confusing picture of Willis’ compensation, there are some interdepartmental discrepancies in exactly how many hours Willis was paid for,” the two Daniels and Villa wrote. “While payroll data from human resources shows he was paid for 4,149 hours in one year, records provided by SPD total just 3,874.5 hours.”

In addition to 274.5 hours of pay seeming to be in error, the fact Willis even “worked” around 4,000 hours is stunning when 2,080 hours is a standard full-time work year. Though a full-time patrol officer, Willis is also an adjunct trainer, which would seem to suggest SPD doesn’t have enough training staff or isn’t worried about one officer doing the work of two-full time employees and earning about as much as three would thanks to overtime pay.

Excessive overtime linked to excessive force

While SPD’s excessive use of overtime is a major budgetary issue, it’s also a public safety issue. Research has shown a link between overtime and excessive force complaints. Officer fatigue leads to greater risk for mistakes, much like how research has showed that truck drivers and commercial pilots make more mistakes as they become fatigued over long hours. For police, those slip ups include excessive force incidents–SPD has killed 30 people in the last decade.

SPD has faced criticism for brutality, escalating conflict, and heavy-handed tactics at Black Lives Matter protests. Rather the pull back, the department has insisted on a large presence at demonstrations, which is driving up overtime costs.

To increase public safety and avoid governmental waste, the City’s next budget should reallocate money set aside for overtime to higher uses, and the next police contract should implement stricter caps on hours per week to lessen officer fatigue and the risk of tragic excessive force incidents. The City should also drive what apparently is a hard bargain that police should only be paid for hours they actually work.

We might find that both crime and police misconduct go down when officers employ as much creative energy doing their jobs as they currently do filling out their time sheets.

Clarification: This article has been updated to noted the City Auditor report came out in 2016 and recent Seattle Times report had confirmed the findings were still a major issue that hasn’t yet been addressed.

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

10 COMMENTS

  1. Lots of small government conservatives coming out in favor of union fleecing and higher public spending when its on police, but for no other humans. Its almost like you guys are cynical and don’t actually believe in anything except for violence directed towards minorities and any of your perceived rivals. Just hope you all stay in shape doing these constant mental gymnastics to justify your inner racism.

  2. I agree with Bluesupport, this article has some solid points but we are forgetting that Seattle is pushing a 800k population with only 1300 officers. Boston is pushing 700k population and has 2300 officers in their department. Yes, I know SPD officers make more money, but thats also due to the cost of having huge tech companies like Amazon, Microsoft, etc out here. No SPD officers is going to sign up here and make 45k in a city thats lowest rent starts at $1,500. The biggest thing here is staffing, I have talked with quite a few SPD officers and they are overworked, most do not even want the overtime. Surrounding cities have more attractive work schedule. SPD makes officers work 45 hours minimum a week and only 2 days off in a row (if you even get those days off). Surrounding areas like Tukwila give their officers 4 days off every other week. For example the officer I did a ride along with has Sunday through Wednesday off but works 12 hour shifts Thursday-Saturday, every other Saturday he gets off though. Yes one work week is working 4 – 12 hour shifts but having 4 days off the following week he told me is huge. He gets the freedom to enjoy life and spend that time with friends and family.

    SPD does have to cover events like bluesupport said. Mariner games, Seafair, concerts, conventions, UW games, any events that require a city block to be blocked off from traffic. Seattle was moving in a good direction when they were committed to hiring 100 officers a year, they offered a attractive hiring bonus of 15k for experienced officers and 7500 for entry. SPD went from having a guaranteed 7 slots at the academy down to just 5 now because they were not filling their seats. If the department itself was not attractive to you before it sure wont be now. Most stay because of the pay, show me another job where you do not need a college degree and your first year you can make up to 80k? After a couple years you are pushing 100k a year. It is a dangerous job here in Seattle. Officers are dealing with drug users, weapons, riots, long shifts, etc. Crime is not going down, not in a city that sees more than a million people in a given day between the people that live here and the people that commute here for work every single day. Officers can not respond to every call in a timely manner. I am not sure of a fix but all I can suggest is go back to hiring up to 100 officers a year to help relieve some of the workload for current officers (even though it takes about a year for a recruit to be a full time solo officer), get a digital system where an officer has to clock in via fingerprint or passcode back at the precinct, and create a software that monitors hours worked and expected overtime, and create a better work schedule for officers. Keep them on the street longer (4 -10hr shifts).

    This article does not account for how many officers SPD has but how many are out due to injury or sickness. It is just like any other job, people call out and someone else has to cover especially a job like this. You can close a McDonalds down for a day due to staffing/call outs. You cant ask criminals to not commit crimes because there was too many calls outs today. Especially living in the times we are now where any symptoms of COVID means 100% stay home! Do not risk putting other people in harms way for it. If everyone thinks they can do a better job in starts today. Feel free to head to Seattle Police’s website and sign up for the next testing period…oh wait…future testing has been cancelled due to the current uncertainty of department staffing. This coming from a department that held a new testing group every 3-4 months that saw over 100 people apply.

  3. Whatever happened to non-bias reporting. You sir are most likely a coward who lacks the courage or the fortitude to put on a bulletproof vest every day before going to work. You put on a shirt and tie and work in a safe environment. The most dangerous part of your day is crossing the street to get your cup of coffee yet you pass judgement from a position of complete ignorance and pretend to know what’s best for your city. You complain and cry foul because the city has to pay hard working people (because believe it or not police are still people) for the extra hours they spend away from their families to pay for their children’s college or live under a roof in a safe neighborhood. You throw frozen water bottles at these people, low level explosives, you call these people every degrading name you can think of, you spit at them, you to barricade the exit of their building and attempt to burn them alive. After all that you then bitch and complain you have to pay them for overtime? Let me ask you this…do you think they want that OT?

  4. You understand that the pensions they receive they pay for them under their own retirement plan. So not good reporting here going on. Overtime comes mostly from having to fill minimum requirements in staffing and even with that most of it has to do with all the Seattle planned events where officers are sometimes forced to fill in events planned out for Seattle. That means some.of these officers are forced to come in on days off. Then if you think about it if you don’t get compensated in other jobs people won’t work for free. I’m pretty sure that the sacrifices everyone makes are in line with sacrifices police have to make. Please use statistics and actually do some real digging and show how things truly work. You all feed things into the citizens of Seattle and fail to tell the truth. Services cost money and I guess for you police officers do not deserve to be part of a union. By the way the retirement system is a state pension. Actually Seattle Police officers save tax payers money because they don’t draw from social security. And one more thing I dare you to respond to my comment. Doug Trumm

  5. Officers with immunity act with impunity. Especially when overly compensated. They clearly see themselves as untouchable.

  6. Someone wishing they had become a police officer and not a very biased reporter. If there where more police officers there would be less overtime. With all the defund police riots….wait for that overtime bill!

    • Couldn’t have said it better… just wait till they see how much the city is going to owe these officers for all the riots they had to endure. What this city put those officers through is absolutely disgusting.

  7. So standard provisions in union contracts for almost all industries are fine….but not for police? Is that what you are saying? 3 hour minimum for OT is a standard for pay contracts. Retroactive pay is standard for all industries, standby pay is standard for all industries. Pensions are long defined calculations that determine retirement pay based on years of service and pay. There is nothing new or fancy in Washington’s police pension plan. I will agree that taking vacation and working OT during it should not be a thing. Your presentation of the problem is a facade, the problem lives in the hands of politicians and management. The major issue is staffing and the onslaught of “events” that require inordinate resources. OT often costs much less than full time employees when you factor in all the ancillary costs of each employee.

  8. Wait so you think officers should be forced to be on stand by… Have to stay within a certain distance to the city on their days off and limit their activities while on standby… But they shouldn’t be compensated for that?

    And the city should be allowed to keep them out of contract for 4+ years and not adequately repay them for coat of living increases etc.? With any other profession there would have been a strike requiring a contract before the previous one even expired. But police officers aren’t allowed to do that.

    And if the city wasn’t so understaffed there wouldn’t be as much need for overtime. But the city had a hiring freeze for a long time even though they were shirt handed and it is a terrible place to work because of short sighted opinions such as these and nobody wants to be there.

  9. Why should we be worried in Seattle, Dougy and his friends have voted to disband the Police force.Next we’ll set up People revolutionary committees monitoring everyone’s behavior.God help us here

Comments are closed.