Eight percent of all dollars the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) spent in the 2017-18 fiscal year went to paying officers overtime wages. That's $15.7 million out of PPB's total annual expenses of $188 million.
That’s just one eye-popping statistic from a new city audit on PPB overtime practices, which suggests the bureau is lax in how it monitors overtime—and is risking the quality of officers' work because of it.
In 2018, one officer worked 97 hours in a seven-day work week.
“This is an extreme case,” reads the audit, “but working substantial hours of overtime is not uncommon among patrol officers in the Bureau. In 2018, patrol officers worked more than 20 hours of overtime in one week 1,100 times.”
The audit identifies some straightforward challenges that come with relying too heavily on overtime: Because officers make one-and-a-half times their normal hourly wage when working overtime, it puts a financial strain on the bureau; and some officers interviewed for the audit said they “feel pressure to work more overtime than they want to.” But officers working 20 or more hours of overtime a week on a regular basis can also result in exhaustion, which can lead to poor community-police relations.
“A short-tempered, rude, or dismissive police officer provides a handy excuse for negatively stereotyping the officer, his or her department, or the profession,” reads a 2012 article in Police Quarterly, which is quoted in the audit.
The audit also notes that “researchers have shown that fatigue is four times more likely to cause workplace impairment than alcohol or drugs.”
So why does PPB have such a problem with overtime? In a written response to the audit, Outlaw writes that “no discussion of police overtime is complete without recognizing the severe staffing restraints we are under.”
As of March, PPB had 75 unfilled positions. The audit doesn’t dispute that a staffing shortage is one component of the overtime issue, but it says the extent to which PPB blames that shortage is “an incomplete and inaccurate story.”
The audit finds that the bureau's overtime problem is also caused by lax management, technical flaws, and a secondary employment program that isn’t carefully monitored.
At PPB, the decision of when to approve overtime is largely “decentralized,” the audit notes, meaning individual patrol sergeants have a lot of discretion over the matter. Commanders, who oversee police precincts, are supposed to “monitor reports to evaluate whether overtime is justified or could be minimized,” but that kind of monitoring doesn't always happen. This means sergeants are free to make decisions that contribute to the overtime problem without any formal consequences or oversight. Those decisions might include overstaffing a particular shift, or approving too much officer time off, forcing the precinct to use officers' overtime hours to fill the schedule gaps.
“The North Precinct approved too much leave at the greatest rate,” the audit reads, “which caused overtime for 41 percent of its afternoon shifts in 2018.”
PPB requires sergeants to give a reason when granting overtime, such as “demonstrations/strike” or “case follow-up.” The audit found that often sergeants will indicate the reason is “personnel shortage”—but because of a glitch with PPB’s software that was present in both 2017 and 2018, it was possible for many officers to be assigned to an overtime shift, even when only or two were needed to meet the shift minimum. According to PPB, that glitch has since been corrected.
The audit recommends PPB keep closer documentation of when large protests or events requiring extra officers occur, so that it will be easier to track how big a role those events play in the overtime issue.
The audit also makes some recommendations regarding PPB’s “secondary employment program,” in which private organizations and companies can contract with PPB to have officers provide security services at their events. The contracts are arranged through the police union, and PPB policy limits officer participation in the program to 20 hours a week.
That limit was violated 39 times in 2018.
On top of the strain the secondary employment program puts on PPB’s already extensive use of overtime, it can also contribute to poor public perception of police officers. PPB requires all events the program serves have a “benefit to the public” and be apolitical; however, the audit says, that rule is not always followed.
On top of that, allowing publicly-employed police officers to be subject to the whim of private business owners allows for serious conflicts of interest. Some commanders interviewed in the audit said they “struggled at times to reconcile requests for police services with the Bureau’s approach to racial equity.”
“I didn’t want to hire out officers to police someone else’s bias,” one high-ranking police employee told city auditors.
Commanders sometimes turn down these requests because they suspect their officers will be asked to "target people of color." But there is no ability to name this reason as grounds for denying a contract, forcing commanders to give another reason for turning down the request.
In her written response, Outlaw says that most of the problems identified in the audit have either already been solved, or are in the process of being worked out. But when responding to the suggestion that PPB limit the number of overtime hours an officer can work in a week—in San Francisco, officers are limited to 20 overtime hours—Outlaw points out that such a requirement would need to be negotiated in the next round of police contract bargaining sessions.
“We will work with the Bureau of Human Resources to include it in the next round of contract negotiations,” Outlaw writes in her response.
Those negotiations are expected to begin in the next few months.