Amid a staffing crunch, Austin police officers raked in nearly $50 million in overtime money
The Austin Police Department paid out nearly $50 million in overtime in the last fiscal year, a KUT analysis of city data has found.
Here's a breakdown of how we got here and what comes next.
The simple question: Why?
A record number of officers left the police force last year, forcing other officers to fill in the gaps and work overtime. At last check, the department had 358 officer vacancies.
But it’s not just patrol officers. There are also roughly 200 vacancies in non-patrol positions at the department. APD struggled to staff its 911 call center last year, for example, leading to excessive wait times. (Though the department is in a much better place as of late.)
How much overtime are officers working?
It’s hard to tell how much overtime officers are individually working. The system is kind of a black box, because state law protects certain employment records from being released. KUT tried to get a breakdown from the city on how many hours each of the highest earning officers worked, but the city’s public information office said that wasn't possible under current law.
APD limits officers to 16-hour workdays, and they can't work more than 76 hours a week.
Right, but how much money are they making?
While the city won't provide data on the total number of OT hours worked, officers' 2023 salaries — and what they made in overtime — are publicly available.
- Last fiscal year, 61 officers earned more than $100,000 in overtime payouts.
- Nine of the top 15 highest-paid city employees were veteran officers. They’re all paid more than the top brass on the fifth floor at APD headquarters.
- Of APD's top-earning employees, three are patrol officers and the other seven are detectives. On average, they earned more than $180,000 last fiscal year in overtime. That's on top of their salaries, which averaged out to $107,000.
APD's top earner, who’s a patrol officer, earned almost $335,000 — three times her salary. For context, she was the third-highest paid city employee last year behind former City Manager Spencer Cronk and the former head of Austin Energy, Jackie Sargent.
Is crime so bad it justifies all this overtime?
Not really, no, according to APD's numbers. The most reported crime in Austin is typically thefts — particularly stuff getting stolen from cars — but those have been down over the last few years, same with most major crimes APD tracks. Austin had a pandemic-era spike in crime — as did other major cities across the U.S. — but that’s gone down since 2021.
So, how can the city keep spending this much money?
Michael Bullock, the Austin Police Association president, told KUT, quite simply, it can't — at least not in the long term.
"We are burning through our overtime budget," he said.
The department has already paid out a sizable chunk of the $25 million allotted for overtime. Asked if that's sustainable, Bullock said,"Oh, no, absolutely not.”
Bullock said the staffing shortage is so dire that the department offers overtime just to cover day-to-day patrols — and those officers are earning twice their wages. That's why we’re seeing these high payouts.
On top of that, Austin has a lot of events like ACL Fest and SXSW that are staffed by cops who get time-and-a-half for working security, directing traffic and being on site if there's a need for police.
At its last update with the city’s Public Safety Commission, APD said it had spent nearly 40% of its overtime budget in just the first three months of the fiscal year — October, November and December.
While the numbers may be alarming, Bullock said those payments likely won't go anywhere until APD and the city address the department's staffing issues.
"If you start paring back our overtime budget, well, then we're just going to go back to having night shifts and evening shifts and day shifts that are showing up at half-staffed or less, which means in an entire sector that may have 200,000 plus people in it, you have five officers," he said. "That's not healthy for the city. That's not an appropriate response level.”
What's the solution?
Getting more officers hired.
If you hire more officers to alleviate the need for overtime, you reduce OT payments.
But the city has struggled to staff up over the last four years or so, when we’ve seen record rates of attrition. Measures to entice and retain new cadets have made a dent over the last year, though.
APD Chief of Staff Jeff Greenwalt told the Public Safety Commission last month that the department could see a net gain of officers this year. That's after a record-breaking 160 departures in 2023, Greenwalt said.
"We're hoping to ... get to a point where we're actually not losing more people than we're gaining," he said. "We might be in a situation to actually gain more [officers] or at least break even, which would be a win for us right now."
Looming over this is the fact that Austin doesn’t have a long-term labor contract with its police union.
The union backed out of talks with the city last year in part because of the citywide vote to increase transparency in police complaint-reporting.
That’s going to be a huge topic of discussion this year at City Hall. Bullock told KUT the union and city staff are working to reach a deal and get more officers hired, so the city isn’t just throwing money at overtime to staff basic patrols.