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Austin PD cuts OT expense with new practices

By Tony Plohetski
The Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas — Overtime expenses at the Austin Police Department dropped to the lowest level in 18 months in August and September after officials ended a staffing policy that allowed some officers to nearly double their pay by working extra shifts, according to department financial records.

The bill for overtime went up in October, but officials said they think that was the result of an 8 percent pay increase that officers received and several events that required extra officers.

The reduction happened as response times for high-priority calls such as assaults and robberies decreased.

"I am cautiously optimistic that some of the major projects and innovations we are trying to implement are actually working," said Assistant Police Chief David Carter, who is the department's chief of staff.

The department still exceeded its $7.1 million overtime budget by about $2 million last fiscal year. The quest to reduce overtime expenses came after the Austin American-Statesman reported in June 2006 that overtime costs for routine patrols had increased 468 percent in five years, hitting $3.9 million last year.

Council members responded by budgeting about $2 million less in the last fiscal year than the department spent in overtime the previous year, and they said they planned to study overtime spending.

In August, Carter announced that patrol supervisors would no longer be required to meet a department goal of having at least 80 percent of the officers assigned to each shift on the street. Under that practice, which was created by former Police Chief Stan Knee to reduce crime, some officers were making six-figure salaries, and a few nearly doubled their pay.

Instead, Carter and Police Chief Art Acevedo said the department would assign patrol lieutenants to act as "watch commanders" and rotate through the city's communications and dispatch center. From there, they would be responsible for monitoring high-priority calls citywide and shifting officers as needed.

Officers would return to their regular patrol areas after lieutenants decided they were no longer needed. According to department records, overtime fell to $550,454 in August and $460,229 in September. Both months were the lowest since February 2006, when it fell to $271,335. The expense increased to $605,570 after the October pay raise, officials said. In November, overtime topped $900,000, but officials attributed that increase to an extra pay period.

During the past 18 months, monthly overtime topped more than $1 million four times. Carter said the new watch commander program has saved in overtime and contributed to a reduction in response times for high-priority calls.

Responses went from eight minutes and 17 seconds in September 2006 to seven minutes and 29 seconds in September 2007, records show. In October, the decrease continued, from eight minutes and eight seconds last year to seven minutes and 43 seconds this year.

Response times averaged eight minutes and 10 seconds in November 2006, compared with seven minutes and 35 seconds this year. George Vanderhule, president of the Austin Police Association, said he and other officers are pleased that practice of putting lieutenants in the city's dispatch center has worked.

However, he said he thinks the department should hire more lieutenants, who would remain on the street and replace those assigned to the dispatch center.

"We know it saves on overtime," Vanderhule said. "We know it has reduced response times. It has been a good public safety move."

Copyright 2007 Austin American Statesman

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