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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Police overtime pay soars during recent protests

Police hold a standoff with hundreds of protesters on May 31, 2020, outside the Spokane County Courthouse.  (JESSE TINSLEY/The Spokesman-Review)
Police hold a standoff with hundreds of protesters on May 31, 2020, outside the Spokane County Courthouse. (JESSE TINSLEY/The Spokesman-Review)

Local law enforcement agencies spent at least hundreds of thousands of dollars on their response to recent demonstrations in Spokane that called for the police to be defunded and an end to racial injustice.

The Spokane Police Department paid its officers $470,577 in overtime to cover sizable protests on three consecutive Sundays beginning May 31, as well as several smaller demonstrations in June.

That figure does not include the regular pay of staff dedicated to the events, including salaried employees who do not receive overtime. It also doesn’t include meals – when officers spend a long shift covering a protest, the department provides them with food – and other costs like equipment.

The city also expects to be billed for the services offered by other departments it called on for assistance in responding to the protests. The city has a shared services agreement with the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, but not with cities like Kennewick, which traveled to Spokane to buttress the local police response.

The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, meanwhile, estimated its costs related to the protests – including staff time, overtime pay, meals and equipment – to total $448,693.

The spending comes as the city and county are closely eyeing their budgets and expect revenue shortfalls due to the economic crisis caused by COVID-19.

The recent overtime spending by the Spokane Police Department certainly won’t send the city spiraling into a financial crisis. The police department budgets for overtime every year, and in 2020 expected to spend $2.76 million on overtime paid to uniformed officers.

But so far this year, it’s spent $1.8 million on overtime. If that pace continues, the department could exceed its overtime budget by close to $1 million.

“We don’t know what to expect. If Hoopfest is canceled, and Bloomsday, that takes out a chunk,” said Spokane Police Department spokeswoman Julie Humphreys.

Although the protest response ate up a sizable portion of its annual overtime budget, the department has saved money elsewhere. Bloomsday and Hoopfest have both been rescheduled and will likely be smaller events if they happen at all, possibly requiring fewer police officers to provide security at an overtime rate of pay.

In 2019, the department racked up $63,526 in overtime for Bloomsday coverage and $92,574 for Hoopfest, although both events provide partial reimbursement to the city for public safety costs.

Long a point of contention with the City Council, the Spokane Police Department routinely overspends on overtime. In 2018, it budgeted $2.3 million for overtime pay to its uniformed officers and ended the year at $3.5 million.

But this year’s spending comes as the city faces a budget shortfall caused by a loss in tax revenue due to the coronavirus, and departments have been asked to prepare for potential cuts.

The first major demonstration on May 31 ended in chaos, as a break-in at the Nike store on Main Avenue derailed what had, to that point, been a day without conflict between protesters and police.

Spokane Police called in assistance from as far away as the Kennewick, but also leaned on nearby law enforcement agencies like the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office. The National Guard was also called in to the city as Mayor Nadine Woodward ordered a curfew in response to the unrest.

The following week, Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl told The Spokesman-Review he felt understaffed and would not make the same mistake again.

Although police were far less visible during protests the following two Sundays, they were well-staffed and on standby just outside downtown. There were no reports of looting on either day.

Spokane Police received support from outside agencies in Cheney, Airway Heights, Coeur d’Alene, Eastern Washington University, Kennewick, Pullman, Liberty Lake and Richland; the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office; Washington State Police; and the National Guard.

The Spokane County Sheriff assisted the Spokane Police Department’s response to the protests, including with a helicopter that flew overhead. The helicopter aided police on the ground by tracking the path of marchers, the Sheriff’s office told The Spokesman-Review last month.

The Sheriff’s office bought new equipment, including helmets and other riot gear, because it did not have enough for the number of deputies it assigned to the events.

“We just haven’t done crowd control stuff – that’s not really our thing very much, whereas the city does it all the time because of their major events,” said Cpl. Mark Gregory, a spokesperson for the Sheriff.

The Sheriff’s office followed the lead of the city, Gregory said, and paid particular attention to protecting county assets like the courthouse.

“We needed to be able to make sure it wasn’t damaged, so we worked collaboratively with them and worked out an operations plan,” Gregory said.

The spending will likely push the Sheriff’s office beyond its roughly $44 million 2020 budget, according to Gregory, which was already under strain as resources were dedicated to the COVID-19 response.

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs, an advocate for police reform, has questioned several aspects of the police response to the protests, particularly their use of tear gas and foam bullets on protesters in and around Riverfront Park on May 31.

This week, he said he never received satisfactory answers to those questions. But he stopped short of questioning the number of staff and resources dedicated to the event.

“I really have no idea whether the response was appropriate,” Beggs said.

Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, who chairs the Public Safety and Community Health Committee, echoed that sentiment.

“They might have been overstaffed, that’s a call I can’t make,” Kinnear said. “But that’s a lot of money.”

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