King County Sheriff's Office Overtime: Better strategy could reduce hidden costs and safety risks
June 27, 2017
The King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) relies on overtime to meet staffing and training requirements for patrol. However, working long hours can have adverse effects on officer safety and performance. KCSO has limited opportunities to reduce total overtime without hiring more officers, but it can take steps to modify schedules to more efficiently meet training needs. In addition, KCSO can take steps to prevent individual officers from working too many hours. Although KCSO has good controls in place to prevent overtime fraud, King County has been paying two overtime premiums since 2012 when only one is required by federal law, resulting in up to $5.5 million in unnecessary payments in the past five years. We make recommendations for KCSO to reduce potential safety and performance issues and for King County to stop making unnecessary payments.
KCSO currently relies heavily on overtime to meet patrol staffing and training requirements, spending about $7 million per year on overtime. Although overtime is generally less expensive than hiring additional officers, it can have hidden costs. Policing is a high-profile and dangerous job that requires officers to be alert and use good judgment. Overtime, when used in excess, can inhibit these essential skills.
In this audit, we assess the impact of overtime on safety and risk, evaluate internal controls, and explore staffing strategies to reduce backfill overtime.
Although overtime is less expensive than increasing staffing levels, high amounts of overtime can have negative impacts on officer health, policing performance, and community safety. We found that as King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) officers work more overtime, their chances of having negative incidents—such as complaints and vehicle accidents—increase exponentially. Since KCSO does not limit how many hours officers can work, some officers are working far more than most experts recommend. This presents risks to officer safety and health and increases potential claims against the County.
The most common reason for overtime at KCSO is to “backfill” shifts when officers are on leave or at training. Hiring more staff could reduce backfill overtime, but it would be more expensive. Alternatively, KCSO could modify patrol schedules to help manage and control the need for backfill.
Since 2012, King County has overpaid overtime premiums to KCSO employees by an estimated $5.5 million. The County is paying two separate overtime premiums when it is only required to pay one by federal law. These overpayments began when the County adopted a new payroll system. The new system automatically calculates the required overtime premiums, but the County decided to keep paying the old premium calculation in addition to the new one. King County officials agree that the premium overpayments need to stop.
We make 12 recommendations to improve KCSO’s safety and efficiency, including that KCSO limit how many hours patrol officers can work in order to more evenly distribute overtime among officers. KCSO should also create a staffing model to accurately reflect current resources and consider alternative schedules that could reduce overtime. Finally, King County should eliminate the overpayment of overtime premiums.
Justin Anderson, Peter Heineccius, Mia Neidhardt, and Brooke Leary conducted this audit. If you have any questions or would like more information, please call the King County Auditor's Office at 206-477-1033 or contact us by email KCAO@kingcounty.gov.