The Seattle Police Department (SPD) has spent more than $26 million on overtime pay this year, exceeding a budget set by Mayor Jenny Durkan and the City Council over the summer. Meanwhile, Durkan and the council still are at odds over SPD layoffs.

The council agreed Monday to approve a $5.4 million, last-minute budget boost for SPD, despite having vowed not to do so in August. But to make up for SPD’s extra overtime spending in 2020, the council intends to cut $5.4 million from SPD’s 2021 budget in January.

The former move may bother SPD’s critics, given that the council relented to some extent Monday. Yet the latter move is drawing criticism from Durkan and interim Chief Adrian Diaz, who are blaming the council for SPD’s budget challenges and warning that the potential 2021 cut would hurt the force.

The council froze $2.9 million from SPD’s budget earlier this year, asking SPD to save that much money partly by laying off bad-apple officers and trimming commander wages, Diaz pointed out in a letter Monday.

While such layoffs require union bargaining and won’t actually happen in 2020 (and while the commanders’ wages weren’t trimmed), council members declined to unfreeze the $2.9 million Monday, saying savings from officer departures might still be achieved. They said they could revisit the question next month.

“Council cannot ignore these realities and refuse to give SPD the resources it needs,” Durkan wrote in her own letter Wednesday, noting she predicted over the summer that the layoffs would not occur this year.

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This week’s disagreements stem from months of debate about curbing SPD’s spending in the wake of massive Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and racism.

Durkan and the council last month agreed on a 2021 budget that will see tens of millions of dollars diverted from SPD through transfers and cuts.

SPD’s overtime expenses have long attracted scrutiny; auditors have repeatedly raised concerns about lax oversight. And more than 150 SPD employees made more than $50,000 in overtime last year.

Overtime expenses

SPD’s overtime budget for 2020 was originally $29.7 million, but Durkan proposed a reduction in June, along with other budget adjustments meant to address COVID-19 revenue challenges. Early in the pandemic, less overtime was needed, because the streets were quiet and SPD halted hotspot patrols.

Cemented by the council with votes in August and September, the reduction lowered SPD’s overtime budget to $21.2 million. Under pressure from police defunding advocates, the council also passed a resolution promising to hold firm at that number. It said the council would reject any subsequent budget increases needed by SPD to offset overtime expenses above $21.2 million.

In reality, SPD had by then already incurred more than $21.2 million in overtime, including $7.9 million in June, when the protests peaked. The council’s resolution was meant to send a message, warning SPD to handle overtime expenses above $21.2 million by trimming expenses elsewhere.

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SPD subsequently limited overtime to about $1 million per month — reducing expenses 64% between August and October, compared to 2019, with Diaz moving some officers from specialty units to patrol, he said. Even so, overtime expenses reached $26.5 million through October.

The issue was overshadowed for some time by other debates but reemerged this month when SPD requested millions of additional dollars to balance its books for 2020, listing various reasons for having overspent its total budget.

SPD didn’t request extra money for overtime directly. Instead, it requested money for other unanticipated expenses, including $5.4 million for officers taking parental leave, cashing out vacation time when leaving the city and working to address the COVID-19 emergency.

But SPD’s overtime expenses were indirectly responsible for the situation, having risen $5.4 million over budget, council members argued in response.

That put the council members between a rock and a hard place. They could reject the requests, leaving SPD unable to pay all its bills. Or they could approve the requests, violating the pledge they made in August.

Awkward solution

In his letter, Diaz said the overtime spending was necessary “because there were not enough police officers to meet the demand for police services due to the COVID pandemic and increased violent crime and protest activity.” More officers have resigned from SPD this year than usual, he added.

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The council cut $1.7 million from SPD’s budget in November, citing attrition savings. SPD could have used that money to help settle its accounts, Diaz said.

Several constituents urged the council last week to “hold the line” on overtime spending. SPD wouldn’t have spent as much money on overtime this year had it not sent so many officers to demonstrations, they said, recalling instances in which officers used force against crowds that included peaceful protesters.

Considering the city’s legal obligations to cover expenses, cutting $5.4 million next year is “the best way I can think of” to hold SPD accountable, Councilmember Lisa Herbold said last week.

“This is how we hold the line,” Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda agreed.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant objected, accusing her colleagues of kicking the can down the road. SPD could exceed its overtime budget again in 2021, she said.

The council can try to exercise tighter oversight next year, with monthly reports on overtime spending from SPD, Herbold said.