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Cuts to San Diego police overtime budget quickly evaporate

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Courtesy 10News
The San Diego Police Department logo is seen on an officer's uniform in this undated photo.

When Mayor Todd Gloria presented his first budget proposal last April, he made a point of highlighting his cuts to the San Diego Police Department's overtime budget — cuts, he said, that would allow the city to fund a newly empowered police oversight commission.

But as of September, SDPD was on track to spend $7.2 million more on overtime in the current fiscal year than what the mayor and City Council approved, according to a presentation made at the City Council on Monday. That overspending dwarfs the $1.3 million budgeted for the Commission on Police Practices.

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San Diego Police have justified the overspending in part by citing a 20% increase in calls for service.

But at a City Council committee meeting last month, when pressed for details on how the increase was calculated, Police Chief David Nisleit gave numbers that showed the increase from 2020 to 2021 was less than 5%. He also gave numbers that showed calls increased by about 18% from 2019 to 2021.

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The discrepancy has led critics of the police to suspect the department is fudging the numbers to fit its narrative that it's underfunded and needs more money to maintain public safety.

"It seems to us that SDPD manipulates data by overspending the budget, and then finding a statistic or anecdote that justifies that overspending," said Keara O'Laughlin, researcher and policy advocate for the progressive think tank Center on Policy Initiatives. "A single, or even a couple data points is not enough to tell the whole story."

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SDPD spokesman Adam Sharki said the numbers cited by Nisleit excluded reports from the city's Get It Done app and other complaints made to police officers not received via phone. If those figures were included, Sharki said, the two-year increase would likely reach 20% or more.

Nisleit gave the numbers while answering a question from Councilmember Monica Montgomery Steppe, who had asked how the police calculated the 20% call volume increase.

In a statement on Thursday, Montgomery Steppe said she has worked to hold the police department accountable to its budget, including calling for “the first ever comprehensive budget analysis last year to assist in making adjustments to items such as policing overtime. The questions posed at the committee hearing are part of the budget monitoring process and I will continue to bring transparency and accountability to the city of San Diego."

Gloria's first budget proposal came less than a year after thousands of San Diegans took part in protests for racial justice and police accountability following the the murder of George Floyd. While his budget increased overall police funding by more than $20 million, Gloria highlighted a roughly $4 million cut to the overtime budget as evidence he was not handing SDPD a blank check. The final cut to police overtime approved by the City Council was $7.4 million.

The mayor said at an April 15 press conference that his proposed overtime cuts were "practical and implementable" and "would not harm public safety or officer safety."

"My responsibility as mayor is to manage the organization, to hold department directors accountable for delivering on their budgets," Gloria said.

But Gloria changed his tune this week after the budget presentation during Monday’s City Council meeting.

"These expenditures are a reflection of police responding to calls to keep our residents safe," Gloria's press secretary, Courtney Pittam, said in an email Wednesday. "The increase in SDPD’s overtime expenditures is due to higher call volume connected to increases in violent crime and similar urgent calls throughout the city. To that end, the mayor does see these expenditures as necessary since keeping the public safe is his top priority."

The San Diego Police Department has a long history of blowing past their overtime budgets, spending a total of $61 million more on overtime than they were authorized from fiscal year 2011 to 2020.

But in fiscal year 2021, the department proved it is capable of spending within its overtime budget. That year, police overtime spending was $900,000 below budgeted levels.

That was due to a reform initiated by Montgomery Steppe.

Typically department heads are allowed to deviate from the adopted budget in minor ways as long as their overall spending is within the department budget. For example, police may overspend on overtime but offset that with savings by not hiring as many officers as the budget would allow.

But in June 2020, Montgomery Steppe asked, and the council majority agreed, that SDPD be prohibited from spending more than half their overtime budget in the first half of the fiscal year. The remainder of their overtime budget could be unlocked only once the department had presented council with a report on their overtime spending.

That policy was not applied again for the current fiscal year.

Cuts to San Diego police overtime budget quickly evaporate