Why New York City hasn’t gotten police overtime under control

The NYPD has blown past its nominal cap for years without consequence.

NYPD officers arresting protestors at Union Square on the evening of Nov. 4, 2020.

NYPD officers arresting protestors at Union Square on the evening of Nov. 4, 2020. lev radin/Shutterstock

Last year, during a summer of protests against police violence following the killing of George Floyd, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council announced a $1 billion cut to the New York City Police Department’s budget, roughly half of which was achieved through shifting costs to other agencies. Of the actual spending reductions, 75% would come from reduced spending on NYPD overtime. The cap on overtime, which previously stood at about $600 million a year, was slashed to $253 million for fiscal year 2021. Critics who waged a monthslong campaign to defund the police immediately criticized the budget cuts as smoke and mirrors. The budget hawks at the Citizens Budget Commission called the cap on overtime “unrealistic” and pointed out that it was only budgeted for one year.

Sure enough, an analysis in March from the Independent Budget Office, the city’s fiscal watchdog agency, estimated that the NYPD had already surpassed de Blasio’s overtime cap in just eight months. Since the beginning of the current fiscal year last July, the city had already spent $268 million in police overtime, and the Independent Budget Office estimated that it will reach $388 million by June 30, the end of the fiscal year. That will still represent a big drop, to less than half of the average overtime spending of the previous three years, according to the Independent Budget Office, but it would exceed the cap by 44%. And there is no reason to think it is permanent: The drop in overall overtime spending is a result of canceled public events and pandemic restrictions, the Independent Budget Office said, and the office predicts overtime spending will return to pre-pandemic levels next year.

The NYPD’s inability to stay under its overtime cap is not a new issue, but it’s one with increased salience in an era of heightened attention to the costs of policing. “It’s a perennial problem,” said Ana Champeny, director of city studies at Citizens Budget Commission. Champeny, who previously worked in the city’s Department of Finance, said the NYPD has blown past its cap every year since at least 2007.

Why is it so hard to control police overtime? Experts who spoke to City & State differed in their explanations, which included the agency’s unique and broad mandate, the unpredictability of the job as well as the political nature of the NYPD and its unions.

The NYPD is not the only agency to surpass its annual overtime allotment, but it is unique in the extent to which it exceeds it, particularly compared to other city agencies. According to an analysis provided to City & State by the Independent Budget Office, overtime payments to the NYPD in fiscal year 2020 accounted for 45% of the city’s overtime spending across all of its agencies.

One reason is the size of the NYPD workforce, which currently sits at about 35,000 uniformed officers and about 16,000 civilian employees. For context, there are about 10,000 uniformed FDNY firefighters and about 8,000 correctional officers.

The city’s overtime cap carries no legal mandate, and the NYPD has blown through the limit every year since at least 2007.

About 25% to 30% of overtime spending among uniformed NYPD officers can be attributed to public events like parades and protests. The decrease in overtime spending for the current fiscal year is mostly attributable to the cancellation of public events due to the pandemic. The NYPD spent a lot of time in 2020 policing protests, racking up $115 million in overtime in just the first two weeks of the protests, according to the Independent Budget Office. Overtime for events was $153 million in fiscal year 2019 and $289 million in fiscal year 2020, with the huge jump explained by the protests that happened in May and June, according to Bernard O’Brien, a budget analyst at the Independent Budget Office who has analyzed the NYPD budget for years.

“There was a lot of activity out in the streets where NYPD had to be present and that did affect the overtime budget,” the mayor told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer in March.

But police reform advocates dispute whether it was necessary to have so many officers at protests this year. “No one said we need 7,000 police officers at the protest,” said Nick Encalada-Malinowski, civil rights campaign director at the progressive advocacy organization VOCAL-NY. He pointed out that the overtime from the protests could result in even more taxpayer money from lawsuits, stemming from widespread abuse of protesters.

The next largest chunk of overtime goes to criminal investigations, including homicides, robberies and narcotics, totaling $139 million in fiscal year 2020. “Operational overtime,” a broad category that includes accidents and emergencies, accounted for $87 million of overtime in the same year. New arrests were $62 million of overtime in fiscal year 2020, down from $74 million the year before, likely the result of the first few months of pandemic restrictions.

NYPD officers have been caught abusing overtime in the past, most notably laid out in the 1994 Mollen Commission report, which detailed extra officers participating in arrests to collect overtime, among other schemes. In a 1995 corruption trial, Officer Daniel Eurell confessed that he and his fellow officers made false arrests at the end of their shifts to get more overtime. More recently, in a 2018 trial connected to a 2014 drug arrest, an NYPD officer admitted to filing for overtime beyond the number of hours he worked.

John Driscoll, an adjunct professor in the law and police science department at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former NYPD officer who served 11 years as the head of the Captains Endowment Association, disputed the idea that NYPD overtime is excessive. Driscoll noted the NYPD audits the overtime of officers regularly and that when the agency exceeds its budget cap, it’s because of the unpredictability of the job. He pointed to spikes in gun violence and homicides in 2020 as contributing factors to overtime. “Some things you can plan for, other things you can’t,” Driscoll said.

Experts agree that reducing overtime would require more political will, coordination and planning than the mayor, the City Council and the NYPD have demonstrated thus far.

Whatever the factors driving it, if legislators want to attack overtime spending, the budget is not the relevant battlefield because the city’s budgetary overtime cap carries no legal mandate.

The overtime cap “is really a goal,” said O’Brien of the Independent Budget Office. “It’s an aspiration.”

O’Brien said that when the fiscal year 2021 budget cap was initially proposed by de Blasio, most fiscal monitors immediately knew it would not be possible given the amount of management change and cultural shifts it would necessitate in the department. “It’s hard to have immediate change,” O’Brien said.

The expectation of overtime is often factored into the expected salaries of uniformed officers. The average uniformed officer brings in overtime that’s equivalent to 16% of their base salary, according to a Citizens Budget Commission estimate, and an NYPD captain brings in overtime that’s on average 32% of their base annual salary. In some units, overtime is part of the job description, Driscoll said. “Certain units, there’s a built-in overtime because of the nature of the job, like narcotics,” he said.

Despite the NYPD not remaining under de Blasio’s recent overtime cap, the mayor contends that his strategy was successful overall. “Actually, the overtime budget has been steadily going down,” de Blasio told Lehrer about fiscal year 2021. “That’s a really good thing. The NYPD is very serious about it. I’m very serious about it.”

De Blasio attributed the agency exceeding its cap to protests as well as a reduction in the headcount of uniformed officers through attrition and cuts. “When you have less full-time staffing, it does create some additional pressure for overtime,” he said.

The argument that a larger force could decrease overtime was presented by de Blasio and the City Council in 2015, when 1,300 officers were added to the force, though it proved to be false. In fact, overtime shot up in the years after the additional officers were added for neighborhood policing, from $693 million in 2016 to a peak of $836 million in 2020, according to an Independent Budget Office analysis. This is not a new phenomenon: a 2004 Independent Budget Office analysis found the NYPD’s overtime spending increased when staffing went up and also increased, albeit more slowly, when staffing was decreased.

Because overtime is built into the functioning of the NYPD, the Citizens Budget Commission has said drastic reductions in overtime require a coordinated plan, which the current budget did not contain. It would also require renegotiated police union contracts, as overtime is subject to collective bargaining.

Samuel Walker, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who has studied police union contracts nationwide, said they play a role in the difficulty of reducing overtime, which he said was not unique to the NYPD. “The problem is pretty common around the country,” Walker said.

Champeny said that pensions, which are also tied to police contracts, could provide another incentive for police officers to rack up overtime. The city’s pension system is based on a final average salary of three to five years of service, and that number factors in overtime. “It creates an incentive for officers, especially nearing retirement, to get as much overtime as they can because it increases their benefits,” Champeny said. Driscoll disputed this, saying that NYPD officers don’t have discretion to receive overtime without approval, and that the NYPD carefully tracks overtime among those approaching retirement.

Most experts agree that reducing overtime would require more political will, coordination and planning than the mayor, the City Council and the NYPD have demonstrated thus far.

In the view of criminal justice reform advocates, the inability to keep to an overtime cap is mostly the result of the agency’s political weight. “The NYPD, because it’s a political organization, is allowed to do whatever they want,” Encalada-Malinowski said.

“It is something that needs to change,” Walker said of overtime. He added that the problem of police overtime is not studied enough. As an issue of wasteful spending, Walker said fixing it should have bipartisan appeal.

“There needs to be a vigorous, rigorous audit with an eye to identifying unnecessary overtime,” he said. “That money can be used for other social services. Whether it’s on mental health treatment, after school for kids, that money can be better spent.”