City paid patrol officers $3.9 million extra last year to meet staffing goal.
The bill for overtime at the Austin Police Department for routine patrols has increased 468 percent during the past five years, hitting $3.9 million last year, according to city payroll and budget records.
At least 10 officers earned enough overtime to make six-figure salaries in 2005, working as many as 70 hours a week to cover for fellow officers who were sick, injured, suspended or on vacation. They also filled in the gaps for 107 officer positions the city has authorized but not filled.
Austin police Cpl. John Coffey racked up the overtime in 2005, working an average of 55 hours a week. Coffey earned $145,451.
“Sixty hours a week is nothing,” said Austin police officer Jonathan Martin, a retired U.S. Marine with 11 years on the force who last year made $55,000 in overtime, nearly doubling his salary. “I’ve worked hard all my life, and this is an opportunity for me.”
The department chose five years ago to set a new staffing goal. To reduce crime, former Chief Stan Knee decided the city needed at least 80 percent police staffing at all times, or having eight officers show up for every 10 assigned to a patrol area.
But instead of hiring enough new officers to ensure that they could fill those shifts, city and department officials decided to give supervisors the authority to use overtime if any shift dropped below 80 percent staffing.
City Manager Toby Futrell says Austin would need 86 new officers to avoid overtime to fill shifts, at a cost of $6 million for their first year, according to city estimates. The city doesn’t have statistics to show what it would cost to reach its authorized strength â€” in other words, to have a fully staffed Police Department.
And even if the city decided to hire the additional officers, reaching full staff could take several years because of a 2004 decision to cut back on the number of police academy classes to save the city $1 million per year. The city decided to add a class this year to help keep up with hiring needs.
“We are going to continue to assess this,” Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza said. “But based on our assessments, we believe adding back a second cadet class should improve the staffing levels.”
The overtime increases are part of a steadily growing police budget, prompted in large part by a new contract in 2004 that gave Austin officers â€” already the highest-paid in the state â€” raises and bonuses.
Even spending $3.9 million in overtime pay hasn’t been enough to always hit the city’s staffing target.
City officials say the department reached the goal 89 percent of the time last year. But certain parts of town have seen fewer officers on the street. In December, for example, the busy downtown area met the staffing goal 76 percent of the time, department records show.
Several officers and supervisors said the shortages leave officers waiting longer for backup on calls and can increase response times for less serious calls such as car and home burglaries.
They said it also keeps them from having time for community policing, one of the department’s proclaimed priorities, which encourages officers to build relationships with residents in the neighborhoods they patrol so they can learn more about crime and other quality of life concerns. And because they’re so busy responding to calls, they rack up more overtime by staying as long as two hours at the end of their shifts writing reports.
In the city’s 68 police patrol areas, supervisors continue to send out regular pager messages offering overtime shifts. First come, first served.
Martin, a motorcycle officer, routinely answers those calls. He worked the most hours of any officer last year, averaging 60 hours a week and earning $117,000, making him the eighth-highest-paid officer in the city.
Officers who once competed for the rare opportunity to make extra cash have become so accustomed to overtime money that they depend on it to pay their mortgages and car notes. Martin said he uses the money to send his son to the University of Texas.
Policies and practice
Today, total overtime, including that of patrol officers, accounts for 6 percent of the department’s $172 million budget â€” a higher percentage than that of San Antonio, Dallas and El Paso.
Futrell said those cities do not have minimum staffing levels.
Experts who study police staffing say using overtime is part of doing business for most law enforcement agencies nationwide, particularly in places with officer shortages.
However, Elaine Deck, program manager for the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Alexandria, Va., said overtime usually isn’t used indefinitely because of the expense and because of fear of officer burnout.
“When people are in prolonged periods of overtime, they are prone to exhaustion,” she said. “And anybody who is exhausted isn’t going to be as efficient or effective.”
Department policy allows officers to work up to 30 hours of overtime per week. They also can work up to 16 hours in a row, unless a supervisor allows them to stay on duty longer.
It is up to the officers to keep track of how many hours they work. Officers may be â€” and frequently are â€” asked to produce a log to supervisors at any time, said Mike Sheffield, president of the Austin Police Association.
Sheffield said officers generally know when they are too tired to work any longer.
“They know their own limits,” Sheffield said. “And if somebody comes to work and supervisors detect they are tired, the supervisor has a lot of options. He can certainly send them home.”
Changes for police
The department first began feeling stretched â€” and began using overtime to fill vacant slots â€” shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when the city began shifting 17 officers from regular patrol to guard potential terrorism targets.
Later that year, Knee, who left the department last month to take a job helping train police in Afghanistan, decided to set the 80 percent staffing goal after the police union urged him to adopt a minimum standard.
Futrell, who at the time was deputy city manager, and former City Manager Jesus Garza signed off on the proposal.
“It seemed like a reasonable goal,” Futrell said. “The idea was that any shift has to anticipate someone is going to be out sometime.”
City officials said the staffing decision has worked: Violent crime dropped 5.4 percent in 2005, and last year Austin was declared the third-safest major U.S. city, according to FBI data.
Rudy Garza, the assistant city manager, said the department also has stayed within its budget and paid for the growing overtime costs by squeezing other police programs.
Still, overtime costs shot up almost immediately.
From fiscal year 2001 to 2002, the amount the department spent on overtime for street patrols jumped from $690,000 to $1.8 million, a 161 percent increase.
The number of overtime hours rose 144 percent, from 21,075 in 2001 to 51,413 the next year.
Then in 2004, the city eliminated a cadet class, which
meant fewer officers were hired on average each year to replace those who retired or left for other reasons.
Futrell said Knee recommended the move so the city could save about $1 million a year at a time when officials were slashing programs in every city department after the dot-com bust.
The Police Department also cut $4.5 million in other costs that year and slashed 43 civilian positions.
Futrell said that adding a second cadet class should help decrease the use of overtime over the next year.
The department expects to add about 70 officers when the current cadet class graduates later this month and another 70 when the newly created class, which will start in August, graduates next spring.
Because the city doesn’t know how many officers it will lose to attrition by then, Futrell can’t say how the new graduates will affect the department’s overtime budget â€” or whether they’ll give the department enough officers to always reach the 80 percent staffing goal for all shifts.
The city has budgeted 1,435 officer positions and now has 1,328.
Patrol officers ‘adjust’
Among the officers who worked the most overtime in 2005, Cpl. John Coffey made the most money, according to payroll records.
He earned $78,449 in regular pay, plus $60,198 in overtime for an average 55-hour workweek. Coffey also received $6,804 for “miscellaneous allowances,” such as cell phone money and a bonus for having a college education, bringing his total income to $145,451.
Knee, who resigned last month, earned about $153,000 last year.
Coffey made headlines in 2002 after he fatally shot Sophia King, a mentally ill woman in East Austin who witnesses said was standing over her apartment manager wielding a knife. A Travis County grand jury did not indict him on any charge and he was not disciplined in the shooting.
He and eight of the department’s other officers who earned more than $100,000 last year declined to comment.
Sergeants such as Fred Toler appreciate officers willing to work the extra hours.
Last month, Toler, who works in Northwest Austin, said he is supposed to have seven officers per shift to be fully staffed, but one is in the military and was sent to Afghanistan in March, and another officer was injured and will be out until later this month. Another is in special training for the next year.
And that doesn’t count officers calling in sick or taking vacation.
“I do my best to fill it, and if I don’t, my officers know I did the best I could,” Toler said. “We just operate short-handed, and they understand that. We adjust.”
Sergeants in charge of scheduling patrol shifts said they will continue to call on officers such as Martin, and he said he will keep working overtime as long as he has the energy â€” and a checking account that could use the boost.
But, he said, “I think everyone is in agreement. We want more people.”
Highest-paid Austin patrol officers in 2005
Cpl. John Coffey – Total Pay: $145,45
Det. Terence Meadows – Total Pay: $128,078
Cpl. Jeff Koble – Total Pay: $126,287
Cpl. Gary Newberg – Total Pay: $123,772
Officer James Schramm – Total Pay: $120,900
Officer Robert Schmitt – Total Pay: $119,833
Cpl. Jorge Carvalho – Total Pay: $118,924
Officer Jonathan Martin – Total Pay: $117,345
Officer Alejandro Sanchez – Total Pay: $115,426
Cpl. George Jackoskie – Total Pay: $112,585
Other reasons for overtime
The $3.9 million Austin police spent last year to put more officers on the streets is the biggest piece of the department’s overtime budget, but it’s not the only piece. Last year, the department spent $10.3 million overall for overtime, up from $4.9 million in 2001.
These are some of the other duties that have helped push up overtime costs, along with the total amount of overtime money spent for each in 2005:
â€¢Additional work hours â€” $804,255. Paid to officers for extra work at the end of shifts such as writing reports or booking a suspect into jail.
â€¢Court appearances â€” $544,199. A contract between the city and the Austin Police Association says officers must be paid at least three hours of overtime if they have to show up for court more than an hour before going on duty.
â€¢Special assignments â€” $783,312. Officers can earn overtime for assignments such as a recent effort in
Northeast Austin to reduce property crime and a citywide effort to reduce traffic deaths.
â€¢Special events â€” $669,729. These are major city events such as Mardi Gras and the South by Southwest Music Festival that need officers for traffic control and security.
â€¢Reimbursed special events â€” $2.6 million. Organizers of other big events, such as last month’s World Congress on Information Technology and the annual Capitol 10,000 race, reimbursed the city for officers’ time.