Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh proposed the biggest cut to police overtime in 11 years in his 2023-24 budget.
Walsh’s proposed budget would slash police overtime from $6.7 million to $5.4 million, or by about 20%. The Common Council last approved a cut that large in the 2012-13 budget.
Syracuse Police Chief Joe Cecile said the cut was in part his decision. Walsh told Cecile the department — like others across the city — needed to spot savings to reduce the city’s budget deficit.
The department could not afford cuts to staff or equipment, making overtime the easiest place to reduce costs, Cecile said.
“We’re just too critical — and (the mayor) knows it — to just say, ‘Oh, the tap’s off, the money’s gone. No more overtime,’” Cecile said. “… But we’re going to try for this number as best we can and see what we can do.”
The council has approved four cuts to the police department’s overtime since 2010. In each of the following years, the department outspent the budgeted amount by at least 9%.
The Syracuse Common Council will hold a budget hearing for the police department on Tuesday. It has the ability to tweak the mayor’s proposal.
Cecile believes a new schedule for the department’s patrol officers will help the department hit the slashed overtime budget.
How the department plans to hit the mark
Earlier this year, the common council approved a new schedule as part of a contract with the department’s union. That means the department will move from a six-day schedule to a 15-day schedule this fall.
The new rotation includes 10-hour days rather than 8-hour days and more overlap between shifts. It also includes two days each month that put additional officers on the street.
Cecile said the department can pull some officers in for training on those two days because it will have a glut of officers. Each officer typically has about 10 days of scheduled training per year. Currently, the department fills those officers’ shifts with overtime.
“One of our largest overtime numbers is training and training backfill,” Cecile said. “So that one right there, if it works out the way we’re hoping it will work out, in addition to other things, is how we think we can come on budget.”
The department also has a number of other strategies to reduce overtime, Cecile said. They include:
- Diverting more non-emergency calls to their electronic reporting system.
- Going to fewer car crashes. If the two cars are drivable after a crash, Cecile said officers may not respond.
- No longer requiring written reports from officers about verbal-only domestic calls. They will consider a police officer’s body-worn camera footage sufficient in place of a written report.
- Coordinating with the schools and the county to dispatch Department of Social Services and school district employees to “child complaints” — some of which Cecile said include calls about children not getting out of bed or throwing tantrums.
- No longer responding to drug overdoses. The fire department and ambulance service are now entirely handling these calls.
The department has also seen a reduction in 911 calls with an officer dispatched. From 2019 to 2022, calls with an officer dispatched have dropped 7.7%, according to the city’s publicly available crime data.
For 2023, the number of dispatched 911 calls is down by a little less than 2% from the same time in 2022.
Can the department do it?
Police overtime has long been a point of criticism of the department.
The Syracuse Police Department has routinely outspent its allotted overtime budget during the last two decades. In the last 21 years, the department has come in under budget only once: In 2020-21, the first full fiscal year after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The department is on pace to again outspend its budget this year. According to the proposed budget for 2023-24, Syracuse police will spend $8 million on overtime during the current budget cycle, about $1.3 million more than it was allotted.
At-large councilor Mike Greene agrees with the department’s overtime budget cut because it allows money to be spent elsewhere, he said. As more attention has been paid to police overtime in recent years, the city has cracked down on alleged bad actors, reducing the number of officers abusing overtime, Greene said.
“Overtime’s not always bad,” said Greene, who is also the Common Council’s finance chair. “Sometimes you need coverage and the most effective way to do it is to use overtime. I think the struggle we always have as a city is, what’s the right balance?”
Right now, the department has 44 unfilled positions, according to Cecile. The police chief predicted the city will have more soon. A large class of officers from the early 2000s will hit the 20-year mark in the next two years, meaning they’ll be eligible to retire with their full pensions. The department expects many to do so, Cecile said.
That could create more vacancies at a time when the police department has struggled to hire new officers. The department has another class scheduled to be sworn in this summer, but they will have to go through training — a nine-month process — before they can be on the road.
Councilor Pat Hogan believes the department will get as much overtime as it needs because of its vacancies. Hogan expects less money to be spent on salaries because of the vacancies, allowing money to be spent on overtime.
“They’re going to come in under budget,” Hogan said of the department’s spending on salaries. “If they transfer it to the overtime line, we’re going to be OK with it.”
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