Boston police officers logged nearly $4 million in overtime pay between 2019 and 2020 for work at Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, or Mass. and Cass, an area marked by a seemingly unending cycle of homelessness, crime, substance use and poverty.

Homeless advocates, mental health professionals and public policy experts said the millions used for policing during that period could have been better spent on health and recovery services.

“There would be so much scrutiny on $4 million if it were used transparently for services and couldn’t be as easily dismissed as a line item in a police department budget,” said Maggie Sullivan, a nurse practitioner at Boston Health Care for the Homeless. “That much money could make a really significant dent at Mass. and Cass. Who should ever wait for a detox bed if there’s $4 million to spare?”

According to police payroll records obtained by GBH News through a collaboration with the Boston University Spark! lab, the overtime spending at Mass. and Cass occurred between July 2019 and November 2020. A Boston police spokesman confirmed the overall overtime total, but did not comment further.

Officers began logging tens of thousands of hours in overtime as the encampment grew and drew neighborhood complaints about crime. Between 2019 and 2020, city-sanctioned police sweeps to remove people living in tents, under tarps or outdoors in sleeping bags were conducted, adding to overtime costs. But the bulk of the overtime was submitted in daily eight-hour shifts.

In 2019, with no warning, Boston Police officers descended on Mass. and Cass. Dozens of people were arrested, many others were displaced and property was confiscated or destroyed. Operation Clean Sweep, as it was known, cost around $20,500 in overtime pay over two days.

All the Mass. and Cass overtime hours in 2019 and 2020 were listed in city payroll reports under a “special events” category — a designation also used to track the number of police hours worked during the Boston Marathon, the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Southie, Red Sox games and Fourth of July details.

Natalia Linos, executive director of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, cited a need for more transparency and public scrutiny of police costs.

“Sometimes it’s a shocking price tag when it comes to public health. People will say, ‘are you really going to spend $3 million on 200 people?’” she said. “But we’re already spending it. We just lost the opportunity to have a conversation about the best use of that money."

Those millions could be used to build more low-threshold housing, improve mental health care offerings or even increase salaries for outreach workers at Mass. and Cass, Sullivan said.

“If you're getting paid $15 an hour to try to connect people to services while somebody else is standing there getting paid $66 an hour to maybe — or maybe not — intervene when there's a safety issue happening is just … it demonstrates what our society values,” Sullivan said. “It’s heartbreaking.”

The police patrolman's union defended the spending, saying that it's the city's responsibility to fund needed resources at Mass. and Cass, which should include more money for social services. Larry Calderone, the Boston Police Patrolmen's Assocation president, blamed city leadership for not supplying enough resources for everyone.

"I get irritated with this idea that because you're paying cops too much, you can't pay other people. That's completely false," Caldrone said. "You can do both, you know, just put it in the budget and make sure that you have the proper money for all the resources. [The city] has the money."

Officers are often required to work overtime shifts, Calderone said, sometimes amounting to 16-hour days worked due to understaffing.

"We are being forced to make all that overtime," he said. "The reason why the city is paying so much overtime is because they won't hire more cops, period."

In January, Mayor Michelle Wu's administration increased housing resources, moving more than 150 people from Mass. and Cass into transitional housing — though more than 100 others were left without a place to go.

Three people in khaki pants and black jackets stand on the sidewalk at night as they speak with five other people standing and sitting around the edge of a building.
Boston Police Department officers from the street outreach team instruct people waiting in line for services to clear the sidewalk following a sweep in January 2022.
Tori Bedford GBH News

A spokesperson for Wu, who in 2022 inherited the Mass. and Cass problem from former mayors, said the city is working to create more pathways for people living on the streets to find housing and that police work collaboratively with public health workers at Mass. and Cass.

“The City of Boston is constantly evaluating our approach based on feedback from city workers and community partners to ensure we are best serving individuals living in the area,” the statement said.

Tents started appearing at Mass. and Cass following the abrupt closure of the Long Island shelter in 2014. The intersection is home to methadone clinics, hospitals, detox centers and homeless shelters, and the sidewalks and empy lots there grew increasingly crowded with people looking for resources, shelter or a place to use drugs with impunity.

After Operation Clean Sweep in 2019, when U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh was mayor, encampments gradually returned. In 2020, some residents were so frustrated with conditions in the neighborhood that they dropped used needles from Mass. and Cass outside Gov. Charlie Baker’s Swampscott home.

In November 2021, then-acting Mayor Kim Janey led a clearing of some 350 tents, only to see new ones return in the following weeks. People living at Mass. and Cass following Janey’s sweep told GBH News they would rather live on the street than be subjected to violence and theft in a shelter or forced into rehabilitation before they felt ready.

Malakai, 46, repairs a rip in his tent, which he recently moved from Topeka Street to Newmarket Square, following a tent-clearing effort by the City of Boston. Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021
Tori Bedford GBH News

The $4 million in overtime costs for Mass. and Cass policing in 2019 and 2020 shocked Newmarket Business Association President Sue Sullivan, who has staunchly advocated for strong actions to address on crime in the area. She said some officers walk the block, respond quickly and get to know the community, but that too many officers seem hesitant to "engage with the population” at Mass. and Cass.

“We have a lot of officers, but they’re sitting in cars,” Sullivan said. “I would not say there is a perception of safety down here among the business owners. The city is trying, and the idea is to put more resources down here, but we really need to think differently.”

Sullivan said she has often taken matters into her own hands, using a radio to communicate with concerned residents and driving around with a flashing police light on the top of her car. Sullivan said her organization has also paid a private security company “between $500,000 and $1 million” since July to serve private business owners and residences in the neighborhood.

“Private security is a lot more immediately responsive for things that are not emergencies,” she said. “If you call 911, it can sometimes take 45 minutes or longer for someone to respond.”

Police union president Larry Calderone said Sullivan is "probably correct" about that slow response, adding that officers are "completely exhausted and cannot operate at 100% capacity at the end of their shifts" due to overtime obligations that can total 90 hours per week.

"The untimely response of our officers is because of the lack of officer availability to answer those calls," Calderone said.

Sullivan praised some members of the Boston Police Department’s outreach team, “the ones who wear the khakis” and walk the streets. Sgt. Paul L. Donlon, for example, has helped her get people living on the street into treatment, and she said she can call on him personally for help.

Donlon was the highest earner of overtime at Mass. and Cass in 2020 with nearly $110,000 in overtime pay, bringing his annual earnings to $240,000 in 2020, according to payroll records.

Others living at the Mass. and Cass encampment earlier this year have told GBH News that some uniformed police officers do not react orintervene when violent assaults occur against members of the homeless community there.

A black and silver sedan is parked on the side of a road next to a telephone pole. On the other side of the street are a handful of people in winter coats standing beside tents.
A vehicle owned by Ware Security, the private security company employed by the Newmarket Business Association at Mass. and Cass.
Tori Bedford GBH News

Maggie Sullivan, the nurse at Boston Health Care for the Homeless, said safety at the site should include those who are homelessness and struggling with addiction or mental health problems.

“The important thing to question is this: who are the police serving?” she said. “It’s clearly not to keep the people who are experiencing homelessness or substance use disorder safe.”

The price tag for policing at Mass. and Cass seems likely to grow. Mayor Wu issued a directive in January increasing the police presence to include “24/7 operations” and “daily collaboration among internal and external law enforcement agencies.” Arrests have increased by 81% as of this month since the same time last year, according to the Boston Police Department.

Eva Tine, a case worker at Mass. and Cass who leads an advocacy group with the National Association of Social Work, questioned whether it's worth the ongoing cost. While she applauded the city's efforts to provide housing and services for some, she said the police expense was jaw-dropping for services that don't address the fundamental mental health and other issues faced by those living in the area.

"If you don't address the root causes [at Mass. and Cass], you're never going to see an improvement in the things that are making everyone in the area unhappy," she said.

Data collection and analysis for this series was provided by computer science students at Boston University’s Spark! lab. Participating students were Joey Cheng, Yichen Mu, Joshua Cominelli, Yash Jain and Shuohe Ren, with the assistance of technical director Ziba Cranmer.