Berkeley police officers sign up for overtime shifts by initialling charts on a bulletin board. Credit: Berkeley City Auditor

The Berkeley Police Department has relied for years on overtime shifts to meet the minimum patrol beat staffing levels authorities believe are needed to keep the community safe and provide the level of service Berkeley wants, a robust analysis released Thursday by the city auditor’s office found.

Read the full Berkeley police overtime audit

But how minimum staffing levels are calculated turns out to be a murky issue — and may result in higher overtime costs than the city needs and staffing levels that don’t reflect community interests, according to the audit.

During the most recent year of the audit period, fiscal year 2019-20, BPD relied on overtime to fill patrol beats on 353 out of 365 days. The auditor’s office said BPD does not appear to track when officers pick up more shifts than sanctioned and does not always follow its own policies around overtime limits. In addition, “more officers are working longer stretches without days off,” the report found: One officer worked 47 days without a single day off. This could result in burnout as well as other health and safety risks.

“They’re working more hours, and many of them are working more hours than they’re supposed to,” Berkeley City Auditor Jenny Wong told Berkeleyside in an interview this week. “They do have this limit of 44 overtime hours per week. It’s concerning that one out of five officers exceeded that in fiscal year 2020.”

A substantial portion of the audit, entitled “Berkeley Police: Improvements Needed to Manage Overtime and Security Work for Outside Entities,” also looked at the city’s practice of allowing local schools and businesses to put officers on the clock for security.

The auditor’s office could find no contracts or policies governing that work, which made up an increasing amount of the overtime budget for officers in recent years: nearly $500,000, almost 10% of the total, in fiscal year 2019-20 (FY20). That year, 53% of the overtime hours related to “outside entities” — which ostensibly foot the bill for the work — took place at the Fourth Street Apple store, to the tune of almost $260,000. UC Berkeley was the next biggest customer, racking up more than $135,000 in costs.

In FY20, 53% of the overtime hours from “outside entities” took place at the Fourth Street Apple store, to the tune of almost $260,000. Credit: Berkeley City Auditor

“Outside entities are public and private organizations such as local businesses, schools, or private event organizers that request police services ranging from security, crowd and traffic management, to neighborhood patrol,” according to the audit. “Officers provide security in their capacity as BPD sworn officers and BPD pays them at the overtime rate, while outside entities submit reimbursements to the City.”

Wong said the near-complete lack of documentation for the work — which tripled in FY20 — was a particularly shocking discovery from the audit. BPD has a policy that governs outside employment, but nothing for overtime shifts within the scope of municipal duties.

For many years, UC Berkeley has used BPD officers to help with security during Cal football games, resulting in abundant overtime shifts, but no one could find any written agreement about it. In the end, all anyone had for any of the outside entities was a single binder full of bills.

“The only thing they were able to produce for us were invoices, which are after the fact,” Wong said. “We looked under the hood, we dug. We said, please tell us, show us. And there isn’t anything on this.”

Whatever security work payments do come in end up in the General Fund, not the BPD budget. Wong said that should change to improve transparency when balancing the budget. Wong also said her office could not determine whether the security shifts were being billed correctly — or whether the invoices were even being paid — because the city does not track this in any identifiable way.

And how much overtime should the city make available to outside entities, whether it’s UC Berkeley or the Apple store, the audit asks. Right now, with no guidelines in place and no tracking of repayments, it’s anyone’s guess. The auditor’s office also noted that the city does not charge administrative fees to cover expenses such as the use of city vehicles or the substantial staff time needed to invoice outside security work.

“The breadth and prevalence of work for outside entities in FY 2020 has essentially privatized a portion of officer overtime,” the audit found, “and without policies to manage this growth, BPD may encounter unforeseen impacts related to equity and transparency of their services for businesses and residents alike.”

Improvements can happen — but not soon, BPD says

In FY20, the $71 million police budget made up about 14% of overall city spending. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

The auditor’s report includes 12 recommendations ranging from defining minimum staffing levels and conducting regular staffing assessments to improving overtime management and developing policies and contracts for outside-entity security work. As always, in the interest of transparency, the auditor’s office asks for resulting documents to be public and accessible.

In its response to the audit, which begins on p. 38, the Berkeley Police Department agreed in concept with all of the auditor’s recommendations but said it would likely take 18 months or more to implement most of the changes.

Public interest in police budgets ramped up in 2020 following George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer and the resulting push for police reform and oversight. Since then, leaders in Berkeley and across the nation have faced public pressure to cut police spending in favor of other programs focused on equity and social services.

In FY20, the $71 million police budget made up about 14% of overall city spending and 36% of Berkeley’s General Fund, according to the audit.

The Budget & Finance committee is scheduled to discuss the overtime audit Thursday, March 10. A full City Council worksession is set for March 22.

In recent years, council members — particularly those on the Budget & Finance policy committee — have tried to gain insight into the police overtime budget. Officials, especially Councilmember Kate Harrison, have expressed concern about what has appeared to be ballooning overtime spending and interest in what has driven the trend.

In four of the five years reviewed for the audit, BPD overspent its overall budget allocation, the analysis found. And the overages had something in common: “Overtime is the primary cause of BPD overspending, with increased costs each year.”

The Berkeley Police Department’s overtime costs for officers and civilian employees grew considerably over the five-year period studied, the auditor’s office found, from $4.6 million in 2015-16 to $7.6 million in FY20.

That year, the department had about $2.4 million in overtime costs for civilian employees such as dispatchers and jail staff — costs this audit did not review — and nearly $5.2 million in overtime for police officers. (Berkeleyside has asked the auditor’s office for civilian overtime costs for the other four years and will update this story if they are available.)

The largest category in costs by far in FY20 — nearly $1.3 million — was to cover officer absences and vacancies, with the bulk of those in the patrol division. The next biggest bucket was staffing for protests and demonstrations, at nearly $700,000 (up from about $83,000 the year before). Security for outside agencies followed, at almost $500,000.

The top 10 categories for police officer overtime costs in fiscal year 2019-20. Credit: Berkeley City Auditor

For many years, the city has regularly opted to use overtime to fill vacant shifts in the police and fire departments because it is generally cheaper than to hire a new city worker — particularly in a city with benefits as generous as those provided in Berkeley.

“Some amount of overtime is always going to be necessary and appropriate to ensure adequate police operations,” Wong told Berkeleyside.

The auditor’s office found that, as of 2020, estimated fringe benefits for Berkeley police officers had grown to equal 106% of their salaries. Firefighters had the next highest fringe benefits rate, at 88%. Ongoing increases in the employer portion of payments into the California Public Employees’ Retirement System has contributed to growing costs, the auditor said.

Not mentioned in the audit, health insurance costs for all municipal workers have also been on the rise, and the city provides 100% of that coverage for much of its workforce.

And that’s where the overtime-versus-hiring calculation factors in.

With periodic exceptions, BPD has faced chronic short staffing in recent years, a trend that has been seen across the nation as fewer people look to enter the field. The small candidate pool has made hiring a challenge, no matter how many officers the city is allowed to employ.

Not counting supervisors, BPD generally has about 10-20 beat cops on duty at any given time. File photo: Emilie Raguso

In addition, over the last two fiscal years, the City Council has held vacant 23 police officer positions and a handful of BPD civilian jobs, using the salary savings — more than $6 million — to help balance the city budget in the face of challenges posed by COVID-19. Some of the money has also been earmarked to support the ongoing process to reimagine public safety in Berkeley, with stepped-up anti-bias training for police, more transparency around BPD data and other efforts.

Berkeley is broken up into 16 police beats, which collapse into an eight-beat structure overnight. The beats require 24/7 coverage. Not counting supervisors, BPD generally has about 10-20 beat cops on duty throughout the day.

As a result of limited staffing due to vacancies and absences, the city has relied heavily on overtime fill-ins to round out the patrol schedule in a process known as “backfill.” At times, beats are also left vacant — but it’s something the department attempts to avoid.

“BPD relies on backfill in patrol often,” the audit found. “Patrol teams often do not meet the minimum staffing on a day-to-day basis without overtime.”

BPD considers 60 officers to be the minimum level at which it can staff the patrol schedule, which is known as a timesheet. The timesheet lasts for six months and changes in March and September.

BPD told the auditor’s office its roster of full-time patrol officers has declined since 2016.

Overtime staffing for protests and demonstrations cost nearly $700,000 in FY20, up from about $83,000 the year before. Above, in May 2020, Ziade holds up a “Black Lives Matter” sign outside the Berkeley police station. Credit: Pete Rosos

The upcoming timesheet has just 66 beat officers listed — a record low for the department — although it also has another six officers on duty at times in the bike patrol unit.

“Eighty used to be the standard amount for a timesheet,” one officer told Berkeleyside this week. “We have so much overtime that sergeants have literally had to beg people to work some of it.”

Berkeley police staffing has been at a historic low since last year.

As of this week, BPD has 148 officers available to deploy but nearly 60 of these are in investigations or other special assignments that are not part of patrol operations. You also have to factor in the dozen or so officers who may be out on injury or other types of leave at any given time. Then there are the retirements.

“Staffing is only slated to decline,” the audit notes, “as there are 15 current sworn employees eligible to retire.”

The department is expecting two patrol vacancies, including one retiree, by June.

All of this contributes to burnout and staff turnover, according to the audit, “which reinforces BPD’s use of overtime to backfill vacancies.” A 2019 audit of the city’s emergency dispatch center found similar dynamics at play.

In October 2021, when presented with BPD staffing data as part of the annual crime report, the Berkeley City Council pledged to hire more cops and get more “boots on the ground.”

The new audit includes no recommendations about specific staffing numbers, citing other work underway in the city that is focused on how policing in Berkeley might be reimagined in the not-too-distant future. The auditor’s office did advise BPD, however, to take a broader look at what the right staffing level for the city might be.

Police reforms could change what “minimum staffing” means

Berkeley police and a Berkeley Mental Health worker on a crisis call in September 2021. File photo: Emilie Raguso

One alternative that has garnered support is the creation of a new Specialized Care Unit — still in the development stages — that could respond instead of police to non-violent calls for help related to people experiencing a mental health crisis or struggling with addiction. If those efforts result in fewer calls for police to handle, the scope of patrol operations could change.

As result, the 60-officer minimum staffing level may need tweaking.

“It is unclear if this staffing level in patrol is appropriate,” the auditor’s office wrote. BPD last looked at staffing levels and police beats in 2014 with the help of a consultant, ultimately going from 18 to 16 beats. “Without regularly reassessing minimum staffing levels, BPD cannot ensure that staffing reflects the changing nature of the department and community needs and expectations.”

Going one step further, the auditor’s office found that the very concept of “minimum staffing” needs clarification. The department was unable to provide any written policies that defined it. The concept does appear in the union contract, the auditor’s office wrote, but “the document refers to BPD’s outdated 18 beat structure.”

“BPD does not use a standard to quantify or regularly assess the adequacy of staffing,” according to the audit. “Command staff rely on informal precedent, professional judgement, and feedback from officers to determine if staffing levels are adequate.”

The auditor’s office recommended the use of focused, regular reports run with staffing software — rather than a broad, periodic analysis by a third-party consultant — to determine appropriate staffing levels for the city. The auditor said staffing software would also help track and manage police overtime and help BPD adhere to its overtime limits.

In its response to the audit, BPD said it is moving in that direction.

“BPD is already heavily engaged in seeking a software solution,” the department said, according to a response to one recommendation. “The vetting process is nearing completion to select the vendor. Following completion of a contract, the steps towards implementation will begin.”

The timeline, BPD added, will depend on IT staffers and their current workload. As a result, BPD said, it may take 24 months to get new software up and running.

“Working with Auditor Wong and her team, the Berkeley Police Department is appreciative of the budget audit report and the collaboration,” BPD said in a prepared statement to Berkeleyside. “It highlights some areas for improvement, including some that are already underway. We look forward to continuing to work with their office and working on the responses we laid out. Improvements in technology for monitoring officer scheduling, monitoring finances differently and hiring more police officers may all have a positive impact on reducing overtime costs.”

City officials have yet to discuss the new audit — but those deliberations are coming soon. The Budget & Finance committee is scheduled to review the audit findings on Thursday, March 10. Berkeleyside will be in attendance.

A full City Council worksession is slated to come later this month, on March 22.

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...