Report: Philly Police Response Times 20% Longer in 2021

Feb. 15, 2022
With a dwindling patrol force and historic rates of gun violence, average response times for Philadelphia police officers have increased from about 18 minutes to nearly 22 minutes.

At least once a week last spring, Jonah Graciani awoke early to a man banging on a woman's door across the street from his house in Powelton Village. Once, he saw the man break her window. Another time, he heard the man threaten to kill her.

"He was being extra violent and kicking the door and screaming," said Graciani, a 24-year-old engineer. After calling police, he lay awake two more hours until 4 a.m., he said. But the cops never showed.

In December, a Center City woman called 9-1-1 to report a possible domestic assault in her apartment building — she heard screaming, slamming, and thuds. But police officers didn't arrive for three hours. A lieutenant later explained to her by email that other calls in that district that night were deemed higher priority.

The next week, a skateboarder was struck and killed by a driver in Mount Airy. For about two hours, the driver of the vehicle waited at the scene for police officers, but no one responded. He went to the station on his own accord.

These delays in police response, and reports of no-shows, have become increasingly common over the last year. With a dwindling patrol force and historic rates of gun violence, average police response times jumped 20% in 2021, compared to the year before, according to an Inquirer analysis of department records.

These longer waits come atop a well-documented increase in the time callers are put on hold just to reach 9-1-1, largely owing to a shortage of call-center staff. But after a 9-1-1 call is answered, the average time it takes for a dispatcher to reach officers and have them arrive on scene increased from about 18 minutes to nearly 22 minutes. In six police districts, overall wait times increased by more than 75%.

The highest-priority calls generally saw response times improve in 2021, but even incidents like burglaries in progress or reports of armed assailants still saw slower responses at the end of last year than in the months before the pandemic. Delays for nearly all other incident categories increased more dramatically, to nearly a half-hour wait.

Nearly 85% of all complaints filed with police do not fall into the highest-priority category, but many of these still concern matters many residents would consider quite urgent — including reports of domestic abuse or reports of burglaries that have already taken place.

Today, according to Philadelphia police dispatchers, the words "zero car" — radio jargon meaning "no available officers" — are more common than ever, as the number of officers in the field during many shifts has fallen.

"They may have up to 30 calls on hold," said Darnell Davis, a union representative for police radio workers. "And they have to keep calling 'zero car,' because no one is available."

Police Department spokesperson Cpl. Jasmine Reilly said response data alone "doesn't give a full picture" of what happens, because dispatchers can miscode incidents or officers neglect to notify dispatch they've arrived, even as the clock keeps ticking. But she acknowledged that there were real factors driving delays, from a new mental health script for 9-1-1 operators to a spike in violent crime in certain neighborhoods.

By the end of last year, wait times for even the highest-priority calls had nearly doubled on average in Kensington's 24th and 25th Districts, which saw some of the highest homicide rates in the city. Average wait times for domestic abuse calls, like those reported by Graciani and others, had quadrupled in North Philadelphia's 35th District to as much as an hour and 40 minutes, the newspaper's analysis found. Homicides linked to domestic disputes spiked 240% citywide over the same period.

For residents in neighborhoods plagued by shootings, like Harrowgate, the delays affect everything from how long motorists wait for police at the scene of car accidents to more serious incidents.

"When [neighbors] call for something not related to gun violence, like a car blocking the sidewalk or a stolen catalytic converter, sometimes the cops don't come at all, or [the caller is] waiting an hour," said Shannon Farrell-Pakstis, president of the Harrowgate Civic Association.

While Reilly said many factors were driving slower responses, she said surges in violent crimes in certain hot spots were a major problem.

"Districts that have higher calls for service and are geographically larger than other districts may be seeing an increase in response times due to the sheer volume of calls and the distance needed to travel from one end of the district to the other," she said.

Some believe a lack of officers is slowing response time. An Inquirer investigation published this month found nearly 14% of all Philly patrol officers reported being too injured to work — even as some held side jobs, played strenuous sports, or rode motorcycles while receiving full disability pay. (Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw has vowed to investigate officers abusing disability benefits.)

The local police union says the ranks have been thinned in the wake of public outrage following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and other high-profile abuses of force, pushing veteran cops to early retirement and driving away potential recruits. The department currently lists 420 staff vacancies, with another 834 officers enrolled in an early retirement program known as DROP.

Other major cities and metro areas from New Orleans to Dallas-Fort Worth face lagging response times, largely attributed to staff shortages and increased numbers of calls.

Reilly said department analysis did not show a strong link between staff declines and delays. But Joseph Giacalone, a former New York City police sergeant and criminologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said fewer active personnel would inevitably slow response, particularly as an increase in shootings ties up patrol officers at crime scenes.

"It's not rocket science to look at this and see exactly what is happening," he said. "It's a lack of personnel."

'The public will stop calling the police'

In Philadelphia, 9-1-1 call volume is about the same now as before the pandemic, with about 2.4 million calls recorded annually.

Delays now stem largely from an increase in the amount of time it takes dispatchers to assign a complaint to an officer after logging a 911 call into the system. The average complaint will sit "pending" for 25% longer than last year before an officer responds, an increase from under 16 minutes to over 19 minutes. The amount of time it takes an officer to reach the scene of an incident after that point is largely unchanged.

Robert Kane, a professor of criminology at Drexel University who reviewed the Inquirer's analysis, said a big driver appeared to be the way the department triages certain types of calls — a natural consequence of a violent crime surge amid lessened patrol power.

"You're talking about a police department that's priority workload has probably increased by 30% since the start of the pandemic," Kane said.

But Kane said unstable response times or no-shows come with long-term costs to public safety, even for events that are not life-threatening.

"When the public doesn't trust its police department will show up when it calls, they will stop calling the police," he said. "It's pretty simple."

Reilly, the police spokesperson, said this gap was inevitable given the need to prioritize, say, a shooting victim over a traffic violation: "Our officers do their very best to answer all calls for service."

The time of day also impacts police response, even for the most critical calls.

Pre-pandemic, it was relatively unusual for high-priority calls to sit unattended for more than a few minutes anywhere. But today, in places like Kensington, where every fifth call to 9-1-1 concerns reports of someone with a weapon or gunfire, these calls can wait for 12 minutes or more on average before an officer responds, particularly at night. Reilly noted that police districts covering Kensington and portions of North Philadelphia were "some of the city's busiest" and blamed complex narcotics investigations and an increase in lengthy car searches involving illegal firearms for tying up patrol staff, even as crime rates in the neighborhood have slowly receded.

To residents who contend with a daily toll of serious and minor crimes, that's little consolation.

"We also have thefts, parking in crosswalks, illegal dumping. ... We have people pushing bonfires around in shopping carts," said Farrell-Pakstis, of the Harrowgate civic group. "It makes you feel bad when you know the police are responding to a shooting and can't respond to your call."

Some districts hit harder than others

The delays vary widely from district to district.

The most dramatic increases were in South Philadelphia's 1st District, where the eight-minute response times seen pre-pandemic — among the swiftest in the city — increased by nearly 150%, to almost 20 minutes.

But, in other districts, delays come atop already long waits.

North Philadelphia's 35th District saw response times increase by nearly 10 minutes, but this district already had among the longest waits of anywhere pre-pandemic. Today, it takes 35 minutes on average for an officer to arrive on the scene after a 911 call has been logged. For lower-priority calls, wait times are closer to an hour.

"We are brainstorming what we can do from the legislative side," said Isaiah Thomas, an at-large City Councilmember who lives in the 35th District. "This is an important issue that not a lot of people are talking about."

Regardless of district, the delays have rattled trust in the 911 system.

One night in early December, a resident of a North Broad Street apartment building called police around 9:30 p.m. because she heard clear sounds of "physical violence," including a person yelling "get off me" in a unit where several young children live. Although the apartment building is virtually across from the Police Department's new headquarters, records show officers didn't show up until close to 1 a.m.

"It felt like if no one was getting shot, then it didn't really matter," said the resident, who asked that her name not be published. "The whole way it was handled was not great ... and made me feel like, 'Who do I call?' "

She filed an Internal Affairs complaint that same night. About a week later, a lieutenant replied that officers had been sent to address — at 12:39 a.m., but conceded there were "too many incidents occurring all at once" that night.

The same month, in Mount Airy, Jennifer Toner called 9-1-1 after seeing a driver strike a skateboarder on her block. An ambulance arrived soon after, but no police officers. She waited for two hours with the driver, who eventually went to the police station. The skateboarder, who rolled through a stop sign into traffic, later died.

Toner said the driver was not at fault. But the lack of police response raised concerns among neighbors: What would have happened in the event of a hit and run, or if the driver was intoxicated?

"I get that the police are busy," Toner said. "But if I had been that young man's family, I would have wanted to know that police at least got a witness statement."

A plan forward?

Police Commissioner Outlaw says the department is working on fixes.

At a news conference last month, she said 50 dispatchers had been hired to address long-standing staff shortages in the 911 call center. Meanwhile, the newest class of 45 police cadets will hit the streets this spring — the first academy class to graduate since December 2020.

Giacalone, the criminologist, said the department could also try diverting more of the lowest priority calls.

"You could have a portal open so that people can report minor things like, 'I lost my driver's license,' instead of taking up valuable time either at the precinct or street level," he said. "It's 2022. Some police departments need to dump the Windows 95 and get into the 21st century."


(c)2022 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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