AUSTIN (KXAN) – In the midst of a staffing shortage, the Austin Police Department is leaning more than ever on officers like Gavin Smart to work overtime to fill any patrol gaps and speed response times.
Smart said he doesn’t work extra hours just for money but because he wants his fellow officers to have all the assistance they need in a volatile environment – like downtown’s raucous Sixth Street where KXAN shadowed him on a recent mid-May Friday night.
“We go through a lot of traumatic experiences together, so you become close to each other. It’s like a family,” Smart said, who added he works 10 to 20 hours of overtime a week. “A lot of times you’ll do OT in the sense that you don’t want your friends to be by themselves at night. You want to make sure they have adequate backup staffing, responses to calls.”
While APD officers are racking up historic levels of overtime, KXAN learned the city has had problems paying that extra income in a timely manner. Though city management said APD overtime payment glitches have been mostly solved, some public safety leaders said the problems remain. They worry the issue could dissuade officers from volunteering to work critical overtime hours when they are needed the most.
KXAN began looking into the APD overtime payment issue after receiving tips about payment delays. In response to our questions, the city said the problem had been ongoing for about a year due to “an unprecedented amount of overtime and staffing shortages.”
“There could still be some instances when overtime is one pay period behind if the OT forms are not submitted by the due date for the pay period,” a city spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “The timely compensation of our employees is [a] high priority for the City Manager and we are continually monitoring the effectiveness of the solutions that have been put in place.”
The city said it’s in the process of new tools to streamline overtime reporting and approval.
It is not clear how many officers have been impacted by the payment issues or how many payments have been delayed. Thomas Villarreal, president of the Austin Police Association, said he continues to hear from officers who say they haven’t been paid overtime they expected.
The overtime payment issues began during the COVID-19 pandemic, when officers were working more extra hours and from home, Villarreal said. He described the overtime issue as “extremely frustrating” and said, “something has got to change.”
“One of the fears I have is that officers will get so frustrated with the city not paying them overtime in a timely manner that those folks who were willing to volunteer – to step up and work overtime shifts – are going to stop at some point because there’s other overtime opportunities out there,” Villarreal said, who assumed the APA position in August 2022.
APD employees work more overtime than any other city department. In fiscal year 2022, APD logged over half a million overtime hours, at a cost of more than $34.7 million. That was a record high and part of a 30% annual increase in total city overtime expenditures, according to city data obtained by KXAN.
Many APD officers work over 1,000 extra hours a year. One APD detective in 2022 earned a total of $339,000 with the additional of 2,700 hours of overtime – an average of nearly 52 extra hours per week, according to city payroll data.
APD’s record-setting use of overtime doesn’t appear to be ending any time soon. In an April memo to City Council, APD Chief Joe Chacon told city leaders his department is down at least 300 officers.
State leaders assisted by sending about 100 troopers and special agents from the Department of Public Safety to support patrols at the end of March. DPS troopers were diverted to a border deployment in mid-May.
The troopers made more than 17,000 stops and 700 arrests while on Austin duty, according to a KXAN data analysis.
With the troopers gone and APD staffing vacancies remaining high, high overtime use appears to be here to stay.
City Council member Mackenzie Kelly, who is vice chair of the city’s Public Safety Committee, also said she fears any delays in overtime payments to officers could deter them from taking extra hours.
If officers aren’t being paid for overtime, they “won’t be inclined to work overtime,” she said.
“I’ve been aware of this issue. My understanding was that it had been corrected, but as I talked to the assistant city manager over public safety I learned it is still in the process of being corrected,“ Kelly told KXAN in an interview at City Hall. “It is in the radar of city management.”