Monday, April 16, 2007 | Response times for all priorities of police calls were quicker in the first three months of 2007 than they were in 2006, according to figures provided by the San Diego Police Department.

Despite the loss of dozens of police officers to other departments since this time last year, the police department shaved a quarter of a minute off the response time for emergency calls and more than a minute off the response time for priority one calls — calls involving a serious crime in progress or a threat to life. The department also slashed response times for priority two, three and four calls by more than 10 percent each.

Police at Your Door

  • The Issue: Response times for all priorities of police calls were quicker in the first three months of 2007 than in 2006. They were significantly quicker for lower-priority calls.
  • What It Means: Despite dropping numbers of police officers in San Diego, the department says it has improved on its previous record of answering calls from the public.
  • The Bigger Picture: The SDPD is currently nearly 300 officers below its budgeted strength. Officials say that service levels to citizens are not suffering as a result but the police union and some police officers contend that they cannot offer the same level of policing with fewer personnel.

But the 13.45 minutes it takes SDPD officers on average to reach priority one calls is still nearly a minute and a half longer than the department’s long-stated goal of answering such calls within 12 minutes. Some San Diego police officers also expressed disbelief at the lower response times, saying the numbers do not reflect their experiences on patrol.

Assistant Police Chief William Maheu said though the police force is often running on minimum staffing levels these days, response times have sped up for a number of reasons. Lower crime levels, increased public awareness and excellent police work have all contributed to the positive figures, he said.

Maheu was the only member of the San Diego Police Department authorized to comment on this story. The police department has a policy of channeling all media enquiries through their media relations office. All requests for interviews with patrol officers were declined and individual officers were contacted by their superiors and reminded not to comment on this or any other story.

Police response times are almost impossible to compare on an apples-to-apples basis across different police departments. Each police department is different in terms of geography, size, population and crime levels, and police departments define the priorities of police calls in different ways.

A police department can also redefine what calls it will answer and what priority category calls fall into. Rulette Armstead, a retired San Diego assistant police chief who now teaches on law enforcement administration at San Diego State University, said she recalls the police department making changes to the classification of calls before she left the force last year. She said those changes were made to better focus police time.

“We were answering some calls that we really shouldn’t have been answering,” she said.

Bill Nemec, president of the officers union, said he doesn’t understand how response times can be down from last year when the department is facing a staffing crisis.

“I’m confused as to how that could happen when our staffing levels are well below budget and well below the established service strength that we have,” Nemec said. “I’d like to know what’s changed.”

Maheu said there were some small reconfigurations made to the priority levels for some calls. For example, he said changes were made to the priority level of drag racing, which was previously listed in the same category as a complaint about speeding down a street. The department decided to raise the priority level of drag racing. However, he said there were no major changes, and the minor changes made wouldn’t have impacted response times.

The SDPD’s target for reaching priority one calls is 12 minutes. That target hasn’t been hit in the last six years. The closest the department has come to reaching it was in 2001, when officers took 12.9 minutes to respond to priority one calls such as a disturbance with a weapon or reported child abuse. Since then, it has taken an average of between 13 and 15 minutes to reach those high-priority calls.

In the February meeting of the City Council’s Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee, Police Chief William Lansdowne told the committee that the police department’s target for answering priority one calls was 14 minutes, not 12.

“Our goal has always been in the San Diego Police Department, for the last 10 years, to get down to 14 minutes,” he said. “We’re getting close to that number. We’re not there yet.”

Maheu said Lansdowne misspoke at the meeting and that he was confused about the numbers.

Hector Fuentes, a deputy sheriff with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department in Alpine, worked for the SDPD for 12 years before leaving in February. Fuentes said he didn’t believe that the response times could be quicker now than they have been in previous years. Fuentes said when he was at the SDPD, he used to check in on what calls were waiting elsewhere in his division that needed attention. He remembers checking one afternoon to find a call that had been waiting for a response for 22 hours.

“I said to the dispatcher, ‘Am I reading this right?’” Fuentes said. “I’ve never seen anything like that in my career.”

Maheu said individual officers are certainly kept busy at the moment. With the low staffing levels, he said patrol officers often find themselves going from radio call to radio call throughout their shift. That means they don’t have the time for other, pro-active police work, he said, but they are still getting to the 911 calls on time.

“I think it’s a perception thing,” Maheu said. “I remember when I was out in the field, you always felt like you were humping and you couldn’t get to the calls and you wanted to get to them faster.”

But Maheu stressed that the times are, nevertheless, better than they have been for a while.

“Times don’t lie,” he said.

Please contact Will Carless directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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