Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
KPBS Midday Edition

San Diego Police Routinely Blow Past Overtime Budgets

A line of police officers observe protesters during a demonstration in downtown San Diego, May 31, 2020.
Shalina Chatlani
A line of police officers observe protesters during a demonstration in downtown San Diego, May 31, 2020.
A decade of city budget data show the San Diego Police Department has repeatedly failed to abide by the overtime budgets approved by the City Council. Now the council is trying to crack down.

On May 31, thousands of people flooded downtown San Diego streets to protest the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. That afternoon San Diego police declared an unlawful assembly and used tear gas, stun grenades and pepper balls to disperse the crowds.

Like in cities across the nation, the San Diego Police Department's response generated intense controversy. Police said they were simply doing their jobs keeping the area safe and responding to criminal acts of violence. Activists felt officers unleashed a disproportionate show of force, escalating an otherwise peaceful protest.

But one thing is not up for debate: That Sunday in May was expensive for the city’s taxpayers. Officers racked up more than 100,000 hours of overtime during that protest and similar ones in the following days and weeks. By the time the demonstrations had begun to subside in mid-June, the San Diego Police Department had spent nearly $11.4 million beyond its overtime budget for the 2020 fiscal year, which ended on June 30.

The overspending is not a fluke: A KPBS review of city budgets and financial reports found SDPD has spent beyond its overtime budget in all of the past 10 fiscal years. The decade of overspending totals $61 million.

Critics say at best the trend shows a lack of fiscal discipline among city and police department officials — and at worst an effort to obscure the true costs of policing in San Diego. And as activists continue to call for cuts to the police budget, overtime is increasingly in their crosshairs.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer has resisted those calls, and this year won council approval to actually increase the police budget. But even as the council has largely gone along with his plans, it is also attempting to exercise more oversight and control over police spending than at any time in recent history — with the explicit intent of confronting and correcting racial disparities that some say are built into the current system.

"We really have to address the issues of systemic racism in our society as a whole," Councilmember Monica Montgomery said at the June 30 council meeting. "It will be extremely uncomfortable. It will cause us to do things that we have never done before and to think in ways that we have never thought. And so I'm willing to take on those challenges because we owe it to the people that we serve."

RELATED: Records Show Racial Disparities When San Diego Law Enforcement Uses Force

Video: San Diego Police Routinely Blow Past Overtime Budgets

The problem of SDPD routinely flouting its overtime budget has been raised in multiple reports from the city's Independent Budget Analyst's Office. Baku Patel, a fiscal and policy analyst with the IBA, said in the years following the Great Recession, city officials cut police overtime budgets to unrealistically low levels.

But the police continued to use overtime to the extent they felt was necessary, with the City Council often finding out only after the budget was already exceeded. The problem reached its peak in fiscal year 2015, when police spent more than twice their overtime budget of $11.1 million.

In fiscal year 2018, SDPD implemented a new practice called "zero-based budgeting" in an effort to more accurately predict how much it would need to spend on overtime. But the impact was limited and short-lived, the department still spent about 13% above its overtime budget. In the following two fiscal years, overspending jumped to 30% and 35%, respectively.

Patel said the police department is somewhat unique because public safety emergencies can make its overtime budget unpredictable. The same is true for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, which has also consistently spent beyond its overtime budget in recent years. But Patel said regardless of those facts, police are not exempt from the need for fiscal discipline.

"All departments have a responsibility to spend within their budget, including the police department," Patel said.

SDPD declined multiple interview requests for this story and refused to respond to written questions about overtime spending.

RELATED: SDPD Says Investigation Into Controversial Plainclothes Arrest Will Remain Secret

While the council plans to keep a tighter lid on police overtime, that task is not as simple as it might seem. A certain portion of the police overtime budget is mandated under the city's contract with the San Diego Police Officers Association — for example, when an officer works on a holiday or appears in court.

Some of the police overtime spendings is also tied to new programs and public safety strategies approved by the City Council in the middle of a budget year. Officers doing extra patrols around city homeless facilities are being paid overtime, Patel noted, as are those accompanying Environmental Services Department employees when they clear homeless encampments as part of the mayor's "Clean SD" program.

But the largest share of overtime pay is due to discretionary shift extensions when a captain allows patrol officers to work beyond their regular eight hours.

Police officials have long justified overtime through shift extensions by arguing the department is understaffed and needs more officers to achieve reasonable response times. In addition, money set aside in the budget for new hires often goes unspent, and the resulting "vacancy savings" can offset the department's overspending on overtime.

Yet even as the police department has gradually grown its ranks in recent years, attracting and retaining more officers with significant boosts in pay and benefits, SDPD's overspending on overtime has continued.

Kyra Greene, executive director of the nonprofit progressive think tank Center on Policy Initiatives, said one possible explanation for the consistent overspending is that all the mayors and police chiefs over the past decade have simply done a poor job of predicting how much the police would need to spend on overtime.

Alternatively, she said, the overspending could be on purpose.

"What we think is more true is that this is an intentional decision not to be upfront about the costs that we’re putting into policing," Greene said.

Greene added that she disagreed with the police department's assertions that it is understaffed and that extending officers' shifts to maintain a higher presence in San Diego neighborhoods makes those communities safer. Even as the department has sought to recruit more officers, she said, it has also touted San Diego as one of the safest big cities in the country.

"We have to be honest about where the desire for policing comes from," Greene said. "Policing is racialized. And so as this city has become more people of color, we've heard a call for more policing. That's not going to solve our problems, it actually is our problem."

While scrutiny of police spending is far from new, it has grown much more intense in the wake of George Floyd’s death. When the City Council met on June 8 to approve a budget, it was overwhelmed by 10 hours of public testimony, nearly all of it in favor of "defunding" the police. That reflected calls across the country to redirect taxpayer dollars away from police departments and toward other needs like parks, libraries, affordable housing, public transit and mental health services.

Much to the ire of those who called in, council members voted 8-1 to approve Faulconer's police budget for the 2021 fiscal year totaling $566 million — a roughly 5% increase from the previous fiscal year.

RELATED: San Diego Groups Calls For End To ‘Pretext Stops’ By Police

Council President Georgette Gomez said in an interview that the police budget increase was due to salary and benefit increases already promised to SDPD employees.

"We had no option, it was due to contract negotiations that led to that increase," Gomez said.

But Greene argued the city could have still cut the police budget and complied with its labor agreements if the mayor and council had decided to cut police jobs.

"We've had budget cuts in the past, and that has meant layoffs in other departments," Greene said. "It's a political choice not to make cuts in the policing budget."

Gomez and Montgomery both requested a detailed report on the police department's budget from the IBA's office, with the goal of identifying potential cuts. The report is expected sometime in the late summer or fall, and Gomez said it would help fix a flaw in the city's budget process that doesn't leave much room for meaningful input from council members.

"When we're in official budget hearings ... a lot of the information is coming at us very quickly, but also at times very late," she said. "It does make it harder for us to readjust or question."

RELATED: San Diego Clears Police Oversight Reform For November Ballot

In the meantime, Montgomery pushed through a change to the city's appropriations ordinance — the law that officially authorizes city departments to spend money — in an attempt to rein in police spending.

The council approved a police overtime budget of $33.7 million for the current fiscal year, which began July 1. But in the appropriations ordinance it approved on June 30, it authorized spending only $17 million of that figure. The council attached similar strings to SDPD's "neighborhood policing" budget, authorizing only $12 million of the budgeted $24.3 million to be spent.

When the police reach those limits, they must go back to the council with a detailed accounting of their spending before having access to the rest of the budgeted funds. Montgomery's change, which passed on a 7-2 vote, also forbids the city's chief financial officer from transferring unspent funds from other city departments to the police department without council approval.

Both are unprecedented moves by the council, which under the city's "strong mayor" form of government has limited control over city spending. Councilmember Chris Ward, who cast the lone vote against the mayor's budget last month, said he thought it reflected a desire among council members to engage more directly with police operations and spending.

"We are in a very difficult budget situation, and every dollar matters," Ward said. "The action that we took, I think, added a little bit of oversight and teeth to council's role, to make sure we're adhering to (the budget) and we're not overspending. Because it would likely come at the cost of some other area of city spending."

San Diego Police Routinely Blow Past Overtime Budgets
Listen to this story by Andrew Bowen.