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Austin police overtime soaring

City paid patrol officers $3.9 million extra last year to meet staffing goal.
Tony Plohetski

The bill for overtime at the Austin Police Department for routine patrols has increased 468 percent during the past five years, hitting $3.9 million last year, according to city payroll and budget records.

At least 10 officers earned enough overtime to make six-figure salaries in 2005, working as many as 70 hours a week to cover for fellow officers who were sick, injured, suspended or on vacation. They also filled in the gaps for 107 officer positions the city has authorized but not filled.

"Sixty hours a week is nothing," said Austin police officer Jonathan Martin, a retired U.S. Marine with 11 years on the force who last year made $55,000 in overtime, nearly doubling his salary. "I've worked hard all my life, and this is an opportunity for me."

The department chose five years ago to set a new staffing goal. To reduce crime, former Chief Stan Knee decided the city needed at least 80 percent police staffing at all times, or having eight officers show up for every 10 assigned to a patrol area.

But instead of hiring enough new officers to ensure that they could fill those shifts, city and department officials decided to give supervisors the authority to use overtime if any shift dropped below 80 percent staffing.

City Manager Toby Futrell says Austin would need 86 new officers to avoid overtime to fill shifts, at a cost of $6 million for their first year, according to city estimates. The city doesn't have statistics to show what it would cost to reach its authorized strength — in other words, to have a fully staffed Police Department.

And even if the city decided to hire the additional officers, reaching full staff could take several years because of a 2004 decision to cut back on the number of police academy classes to save the city $1 million per year. The city decided to add a class this year to help keep up with hiring needs.

"We are going to continue to assess this," Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza said. "But based on our assessments, we believe adding back a second cadet class should improve the staffing levels."

The overtime increases are part of a steadily growing police budget, prompted in large part by a new contract in 2004 that gave Austin officers — already the highest-paid in the state — raises and bonuses.

Even spending $3.9 million in overtime pay hasn't been enough to always hit the city's staffing target.

City officials say the department reached the goal 89 percent of the time last year. But certain parts of town have seen fewer officers on the street. In December, for example, the busy downtown area met the staffing goal 76 percent of the time, department records show.

Several officers and supervisors said the shortages leave officers waiting longer for backup on calls and can increase response times for less serious calls such as car and home burglaries.

They said it also keeps them from having time for community policing, one of the department's proclaimed priorities, which encourages officers to build relationships with residents in the neighborhoods they patrol so they can learn more about crime and other quality of life concerns. And because they're so busy responding to calls, they rack up more overtime by staying as long as two hours at the end of their shifts writing reports.

In the city's 68 police patrol areas, supervisors continue to send out regular pager messages offering overtime shifts. First come, first served.

Martin, a motorcycle officer, routinely answers those calls. He worked the most hours of any officer last year, averaging 60 hours a week and earning $117,000, making him the eighth-highest-paid officer in the city.

Officers who once competed for the rare opportunity to make extra cash have become so accustomed to overtime money that they depend on it to pay their mortgages and car notes. Martin said he uses the money to send his son to the University of Texas.