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Police Are Taking Longer To Respond
A review of 911 data and media reporting from over 20 agencies shows police response times increased in 2022.
The BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front)
Data from 15 law enforcement agencies show many police departments are taking longer to respond to 911 calls as they grapple with officer shortages. Longer response times lead to underreporting of crime and may decrease the likelihood that reported crimes get solved.
Longer Response Times
There are no national standards for collecting and reporting response times, but many police departments publish Calls for Service data which makes up a record of every incident a police department responded to each year. Calls for Service includes both 911 calls as well as officer-initiated incidents (like pulling over a speeding car in a traffic stop). Law enforcement agencies respond to hundreds of thousands or even millions of 911 calls each year (NYPD had 5.5 million Calls for Service between January and September 2022!). For the sake of this analysis we are going to focus on citizen generated Calls for Service which were either identified by the agency or derived by taking all incidents with a response time greater than 0.1
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I found 15 US law enforcement agencies covering nearly 5 percent of the US population that publish Calls for Service data with enough information to calculate response times2 in their open data portals. Response times increased from 2019 to 2022 in nearly all of them with Cincinnati being the only place with lower response times this year than three years ago.
Some of the increases were quite small. Response times in Mesa, AZ increased from 8 minutes on average in 2019 to 8.8 minutes on average in 2022. Other increases were quite large. Response times in New Orleans, LA increased from 51 minutes on average in 2019 to 146 minutes on average in 2022.
And it is not just low priority incidents like shoplifting and fender benders seeing longer police responses. About half of the agencies break down Calls for Service by priority3, and responses to highest priority incidents increased from 2019 to 2022 in all of them. Responses to high priority incidents in New Orleans increased from 15.3 to 32.4 minutes on average and high priority responses went from 8.3 minutes 2019 to 16.4 minutes in 2022 on average in Portland.
The problem clearly extends beyond this seemingly random set of 15 agencies as media reports from a host of other cities reinforces how widespread the problem is. Outlets in Washington, DC, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, San Diego and Tucson reported on longer police response times in 2022 while police departments in Albuquerque and Milwaukee released aggregated reporting showing higher response times in 2022 relative to previous years.
Longer response times are logically related to widespread staffing declines in big city police departments. A recent survey of Police Executive Research Forum members found that half of agencies had fewer officers than 4 or 5 years ago and nearly three-quarters of agencies had a decline in applications.
NYPD declined from over 36,000 officers in 2019 to about 34,000 in 2022. Police departments in San Francisco and New Orleans have shrunk by 17 and 18 percent respectively since 2019, and Seattle’s police department shrank by over 25 percent between 2019 and 2022.
What it Means
Longer police response times lead to a series of other issues. To begin with, longer response times reduce the likelihood that an incident will be successfully reported to police which in turn leads to crimes being undercounted.
The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) shows that many types of crime are already vastly underreported to police. Year after year NCVS highlights how property crimes in particular are less likely to be reported to police. These incidents also have have above average response times which exacerbates the tendency to underreport.
Think about it - it is 1 AM and you leave the bar and find that your car was broken into. You call 911 and they say that they will dispatch an officer as soon as possible but none are available at the moment. You wait for an hour before taking an Uber home and going to sleep. The officer shows up at 4 AM to find nobody on the scene. The officer calls your cell but you sleep through it. The officer marks the call as Gone on Arrival and moves on to the next issue. Maybe you try again in the morning, but if nothing of value was stolen then it may not be worth your time.
In San Francisco, 18 percent of Calls for Service with a response time under 5 minutes in 2022 had a disposition of “Gone on Arrival” or “Unable to Locate” compared to 57 percent of incidents with a response time of 3 hours or more. A nearly identical pattern held true in New Orleans as well.
Longer police times may also lessen the chances that an offender is arrested at the scene or a suspect is named by a victim though the research is somewhat unclear.
A good chunk of the research on whether faster response times can raise clearance rates comes from experiments performed in Kansas City in the 1970s. Lawrence Sherman, summarizing the state of research on the role of response times in solving crimes, wrote in 2013 that “There is no direct evidence that rapid response can make any difference in detection or crime rates and some indirect evidence that it cannot. It is very rare that rapid response can catch an offender.” If police can arrive on the scene within a minute or two then that might make a difference, but responses of that rapidity don’t happen very often.
A 2017 study by economists in the UK, however, found a reasonably strong relationship between response times and clearance rates. Their study found that “the likelihood of an immediate arrest and the likelihood that a suspect will be named by a victim or witness both increase as response time becomes faster” with “a 10% increase in response time leads to a 4.7 percentage points decrease in the clearance rate.”
The 2017 study asserts that “when arriving more promptly, responding officers may be more likely to find witnesses to the crime and to interrogate them before their recollections worsen. A faster response also provides a strong signal to the victim and witnesses that the police is both competent and likely to take the offense seriously, which could improve their willingness to cooperate in the investigation.”
It would make logical sense for longer response times to mean lower clearances though there is still much to learn about this relationship.
One possible solution to longer response times is to hire civilians to respond to Calls for Service and investigate incidents that do not need inherently a response from a person with a badge and a gun. The Baltimore Police Department, for example, began to civilianize some property crime investigations in 2022.
Other cities like Denver and Oakland are employing civilians to handle mental health incidents that may not require a police response. Mental health calls, however, typically account for a tiny fraction of overall 911 responses for a law enforcement agency each year so the overall impact from these programs may be somewhat constrained (though employing these types of programs may bring other advantages beyond improving response time efficiency).
Increasing the share of incidents that are handled either online or over the phone is another approach to improving response times. This can lead to fewer calls being handled in person by sworn officers while still allowing citizens to report crimes and submit evidence (like surveillance footage.
Many police departments have fewer commissioned officers now than they did three years ago. The result is longer response times and a host of associated problems. Many agencies are pulling out all stops to to grow their sworn strengths but it is not clear whether these steps will succeed.
Agencies that are struggling with longer response times may need to accept their present reality and need to devise solutions that do not inherently require a commissioned police officer to be physically present in order to handle certain situations. It is not yet clear though if any law enforcement agency is willing to civilianize response at a scale that would make a dent in the hundreds of thousands or millions of Calls for Service they are asked to respond to each year.
Some agencies identify whether an incident was generated by an officer or came from a citizen, but response times from citizen generated incidents (such as a vehicle burglary) for those that don’t can be weaned out by taking all incidents with a response time greater than 0.
NYPD Calls for Service data covers through September 2022. Detroit Calls for Service data is weirdly missing September and October in both 2019 and 2020 but is otherwise complete.
Cincinnati Police Department uses 35 priority levels that weren’t entirely clear so I did not include CPD in this part of the analysis.