(The Center Square) – Police in Seattle are seeing millions of dollars more in overtime pay amid ongoing civil unrest, but long hours and lucrative off-hours work has weighed on law enforcement for years.
In the months since protests against police brutality began in Seattle earlier this summer, nearly 1,300 Seattle Police Department (SPD) officers and civilian employees have been deployed to police demonstrations, the department reported to Seattle City Council in June.
According to SPD records obtained by The Center Square, Seattle police spent roughly $9.3 million on overtime pay this past June. By contrast, overtime pay amounted to $3.5 million in June 2019 and $3.1 million in June 2018. By July, total overtime pay dropped to $6.9 million.
Last year, the SPD boasted 1,433 sworn officers. SPD officers receive a starting salary of $83,640 per year. Per federal labor laws, officers earning overtime make 1.5 times their regular hourly pay.
In June, King County Council senior analyst Greg Doss reported to the Seattle City Council that under the initial 2020 Seattle city budget, roughly $30 million was earmarked to cover officers' overtime costs out of its nearly $400 million budget.
Earlier this summer, Open The Books, a non-profit group that tracks U.S. government spending, found 119 of Seattle’s top 200 highest-paid employees worked within the Seattle Police Department, earning up to $268,000.
That statistic was cited by Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, who proposed an amendment capping police pay at $150,000.
Protests against police brutality began around May 29 as demonstrations in Seattle’s International District spread citywide. Around that time, Seattle police began using pepper spray and flash bangs to disperse crowds. The following day, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced a 5 p.m. curfew that lasted four days as protesters marched on Interstate 5 and downtown stores were looted. Dozens were arrested over the next several weeks for disorderly conduct, harassment, and arson.
On June 5, the Seattle City Council banned the use of tear gas for 30 days until a federal judge overruled the ban in July.
By June 8, Seattle protesters cordoned off six city blocks in the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood to form the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone” (CHAZ), later known as “Capitol Hill Organized Protest” (CHOP).
CHOP protesters called on the city to cut its $409 million police budget by 50 percent, fund social services in historically black communities, and guarantee protesters immunity from criminal charges. CHOP was cleared by police on July 1.
In late July, federal agents were deployed to Seattle under President Donald Trump’s executive order protecting American monuments. They made no known arrests and departed at the end of July while under pressure to leave from Washington state leaders.
Overtime can include more than just emergency responses and often entails dignitary visits, concerts, sporting events, festivals, and protests.
A 127-page audit by Seattle city auditors in 2018 found that the SPD spent $10.3 million to staff 724 special events in 2016, roughly double from $5.4 million in 2010.
In 2014, the SPD’s general police fund stood at more than $288 million with more than $15 million set aside for overtime pay, according to the city’s most recent police audit in 2016. Actual overtime pay costs that year totaled more than $23 million, auditors reported.
Denver, Colo. limits police work hours to 64 hours per week and caps overtime at 24 hours if officers worked a normal 40-hour week. San Francisco, Calif. limits overtime to 20 hours in one week. Seattle limits all hours worked to 90 per week.
SPD hired 108 officers in 2019 and recruited two lateral officers in April as 17 officers left the department, according to Doss.
According to the 2016 audit, the SPD’s overtime budget has exceeded projections every year since 1994.
In 2014, Seattle ranked in the top-10 cities for unbalanced overtime budgets, pay auditors reported.
Auditors wrote that the SPD’s overtime policies were “not adequate” and did not provide clear guidelines to supervisors on how or when to track overtime worked.
In addition, auditors identified IT problems in the SPD’s payroll system as the source for more than 400 duplicate overtime payments in 2014 that totaled $160,000. In the years since, the department has tried to implement timekeeping systems such as Kronos with mixed results.
In 2018, SPD’s Chief Operating Officer Brian Maxey resigned after emailing Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s attorney, Ian Warner, to complain about failed IT rollouts. Between 2013 and 2015, only 88 percent of overtime hours were approved via the department’s online payroll system, leaving $3.2 million attributed to unclear work activities, auditors found.
Violent crime in Seattle has been dropping in line with national trends over the past quarter-century, according to FBI and Bureau of Justice statistics.
In Seattle, violent crime in 2012 had declined 51 percent from its peak in 1990, according to city data. Between 2019 and 2009, Seattle’s annual average homicide rate was 26 compared to 1994 when the city saw 69 homicides.
The nature of police work is rapidly changing as mental health work is quickly becoming the source of the police’s most urgent calls.
While cities like Seattle have created various mental health units within their police forces, others like Vancouver, Wash., have invested in separate civilian-led mental health crisis teams.
Despite long hours on the job, Seattle police officers still spend thousands more hours moonlighting in the private sector.
A 2017 national study conducted by Seth Stoughton, a former police officer and associate professor of law at the University of South Carolina, found that about 80 percent of police agencies allow some kind of outside work, although the terms of that work vary considerably.
Historically, auditors found that up until 2016, the SPD has had difficulty enforcing overtime restrictions, which relied on self-reporting.
Former Seattle Mayor Tim Burgess signed an executive order in 2017 creating a civilian office within the Seattle Police Department regulating and managing secondary employment.
By contrast, the city of Long Beach, Calif., prohibits officers from working secondary jobs within the city limits and caps off-duty work at 20 untracked hours per week.
Seattle has seen a little more than $3 million in cuts to its $400 million plus police budget, ending a number of special units like Seattle’s homeless sweeps team and bolstering funding for social services and affordable housing.
Seattle City Council will debate the SPD’s 2021 budget later this month.