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Berkeley police spending has ballooned in recent years and the biggest reason is police overtime, a new report by the city auditor found.

In 2020, police outspent their overtime budget by $5.25 million, and police used overtime to keep an outdated minimum number of officers on the street, City Auditor Jenny Wong said.

Officers are not adhering to limits on overtime, according to the audit. Twenty-one percent of Berkeley officers in fiscal year 2020 exceeded the department’s overtime limit at least once. The limit is 44 overtime hours in a week.

“Excessive overtime can lead to fatigue-impaired officers, increasing risks to officers, the City and the public,” Wong said in a statement. “Our audit sought to understand this increase in overtime and the various reasons for overtime, including work with outside entities.”

Wong said specifically that excessive overtime can lead to burnout and impaired judgment.

“They’re (officers) making these very important decisions about public safety,” Wong added. “It’s important they get adequate rest.”

Wong said it is her job to look at concerns and risks “before something really bad happens.”

The report does not identify any mistakes police may have made because of excessive overtime.

One officer worked 47 days in a row without a day off, Wong said.

Overtime in lieu of hiring

The current minimum number of officers on patrol each day is based on a 2014 report by Matrix Consulting Group in San Mateo. Minimum staffing is 60 sworn officers on seven teams covering 16 beats at all times of the day.

Police told Wong that some overtime is necessary because of regular absences. It costs less to use overtime in general than to hire another full-time sworn officer, Wong said.

Behind the use of overtime is the need to fill absences and make up vacancies for positions authorized by the City Council. Police have had fewer officers in their sworn ranks in recent years, with as many as 27 vacancies of authorized positions in 2018.

Wong also uncovered a lack of transparency in the way police provide security for private businesses, such as the Apple retail store on Fourth Street.

Only businesses that know about the security program offered by police use it, Wong said. She said police have agreed to provide information about the program on their website.

She also suggested that officers in that role could be seen as biased in the way they handle disputes between members of the public and businesses. The officer may not be viewed as objective because they are working for the business.

“It’s important we guard against a perception of bias,” Wong said.

The audit also recommends police update their policies and procedures for providing security work for businesses.

Police respond to report

In the report, police responded to Wong’s concerns. Police also issued a comment.

“The Berkeley Police Department is appreciative of the budget audit report and the collaboration,” police spokesperson Officer Byron White said. “It highlights some areas for improvement, including some that are already underway.

“We look forward to continuing to work with their office and working on the responses we laid out,” White said. “Improvements in technology for monitoring officer scheduling, monitoring finances differently and hiring more police officers may all have a positive impact on reducing overtime costs.”

City management also said in the report that they agree with Wong’s findings, conclusions and recommendations.

But Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin said the time police are proposing to implement them is too long. Also, the city needs to conduct a study to determine what the right level of police staffing is, he said.