San Diego Police officers make a traffic stop on University Avenue in City Heights in 2014. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

Journalism won’t die if you donate. Support Voice of San Diego today!

The time it’s taking San Diego police to respond to crimes including robberies, active domestic violence incidents and assaults is soaring. 

A Voice of San Diego analysis of police data shows average response times to robberies more than doubled in five of the city’s nine police districts from 2018 to 2022 — and response times were up more than 60 percent in three other districts. 

Response times to active domestic violence calls, assaults and indecent exposure incidents rose an average of more than 78 percent during the same period. Responses to people experiencing a mental health crisis increased too. Callers reporting people in crisis in 2022 waited for officers on average more than double the amount of time they did in 2018 in all but three police districts.  

Police data shows average responses to calls classified as life-threatening emergencies — which could include a murder or shooting — remained within department-set targets to arrive within seven minutes last year. Response times for minor requests for police service — known as Priority 4 calls — also remained steady. But response times for priorities 1, 2 and 3 — which include everything from child abuse and bomb threats to lower-level reports like noise complaints — are spiking.  

Police now dramatically exceed targets for most categories of lower-priority calls, unsettling residents and officers. 

Police say they have already reallocated some special units to respond to calls amid what they describe as a staffing shortage and are exploring other ways to address the problem. Mayor Todd Gloria said his administration is analyzing how police resources are deployed to find ways to stem rising response times. 

For now, San Diego police Capt. Jeff Jordon acknowledged police are struggling to keep up. 

“There are simply times where the radio calls simply outstrip anything we have to respond to them,” Jordon said.  

North Park resident Isaac Howe has personal experience with this challenge. He was one of a handful of callers who dialed 911 in Mission Bay Park on Sunday, Jan. 22, after witnessing a man screaming and striking a woman accompanied by two young children. 

“I saw him numerous times throw her to the ground by her hair, slap her, punch her in the face,” said Howe, who was visiting the park with his wife and baby. 

When Howe questioned when police could respond, a dispatcher told him the nearest officer was busy with another call, he said. Howe debated whether to intervene. 

Isaac Howe walks with his daughter in Mission Bay on Feb. 9, 2023.
Isaac Howe walks with his daughter in Mission Bay on Feb. 9, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Police records show officers arrived about 48 minutes after the first 911 call, and it took another seven minutes to find and arrest the man for public intoxication. Officers didn’t find the woman listed in their report as his ex-girlfriend. She was gone by the time they arrived.  

Howe said the incident shook him.  

“It forces me as a citizen to really question my ability to rely on the police to come to my aid,” Howe said. 

April Laster had similar feelings after delayed responses to two incidents at her nonprofit’s now-former Oak Park office space. 

In one of those instances, Laster recalled, she rushed to the Open Heart Leaders’ office early one morning in June 2021 after a burglar alarm went off. The nonprofit’s security system detected someone inside and continued to for hours. Laster said she sat outside in her car in her pajamas waiting for police. 

Laster said officers didn’t respond until after she showed up several hours later to a Zoom meeting of the mayor’s Black Advisory Group in tears, still in her pajamas. Gloria and others asked why she was upset. 

“Next thing, I’ve got officers rushing to my building,” Laster said. 

Laster believes she would have waited longer if she hadn’t been on Zoom with the mayor that day. She later discovered camera equipment was missing and learned the building next door had been hit too. She’s convinced police might have caught the burglar if they had arrived soon after the alarm sounded. 

Jordon, the police captain, largely attributes increasing response times to a record-low number of officers available to respond to calls. 

San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit speaks at a press conference announcing the department’s decision to stop using the carotid restraint method. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Police Chief David Nisleit wrote in an August 2022 memo obtained by Voice that the department had “the lowest available sworn staffing in over 15 years.” 

At the time, the chief wrote that the department had 1,629 “available” officers — down from just under 1,700 five years earlier.  

That number excludes more than 230 other officers — or roughly 12.5 percent of employed officers — unavailable for full duty in summer 2022 for reasons including leaves, light-duty assignments and the need to complete a training academy. Recruits who graduate from the academy are considered available once they are assigned to hit the streets with a field training officer.  

Nisleit also wrote that nearly 250 officers left the agency between July 2021 and early August 2022 and another 32 officers had started the hiring process with other law enforcement agencies. Nisleit said at the time that about 100 officers had left as a result of the city’s soon-to-be-former COVID vaccine mandate

“The department’s highest priority is the availability of SDPD’s patrol divisions to staff enough officers to respond to life-threatening emergency calls for service in seven minutes or less citywide,” Nisleit wrote. “SDPD is still meeting its emergency response goals, but it’s widely known that responses times to lower priority calls for service are rising exponentially and failing to meet public safety expectations.” 

Jordon declined to provide updated available staffing numbers like those Nisleit shared last year, citing safety concerns. 

The police captain said increasing administrative responsibilities tied to new initiatives such as statewide transparency reforms and an uptick in public records requests have also moved more officers off the street, exacerbating the department’s staffing challenges. 

The staffing crunch and increased response times coincided with steadily increasing San Diego police budgets over much of the last decade.  

Indeed, the city budgeted nearly $473 million for the department in fiscal year 2018. The City Council approved a $594 million budget for the agency for this year. 

San Diego isn’t the only city grappling with staffing shortages and spiking response times. A crush of cities including Portland, Washington D.C. and Dallas have reported similar crises.   

A 2022 Police Executive Research Forum survey of the national organization’s members also found that more than half of agencies that responded had fewer police officers than they did four or five years ago and had seen spikes in retirements and resignations.  

In San Diego, police union president Jared Wilson said staffing shortages have forced supervisors to make tough decisions, including which beats should have officers assigned to them. He said new department report-writing systems and de-escalation practices that many in the community support have also taken more of existing officers’ time and resources.  

Wilson said officers are upset about increasing response times.  

“Our officers are doing their best, but they are absolutely burnt out and some are leaving over the workload,” Wilson said.  

In a statement, Gloria also acknowledged that increased training requirements, accountability measures and de-escalation practices have impacted response times in recent history. 

“There’s no question that a number of stressors are affecting response times, and we have been and will continue to make changes to address these impacts and ensure San Diegans’ continued safety,” Gloria wrote. “We’re taking a hard look at how we allocate resources so that, for instance, our highly trained sworn officers aren’t spending time on administrative tasks that can be handled by civilians or responding to behavioral health emergencies that should be directed to mental health professionals from the outset.” 

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

Join the Conversation


  1. They steal, they do meth, they go to the bathroom on the floor, they bring tons of garbage into your neighborhood and discard it there.

    No fines, no jail, no consequences. If you have a beer and drive you’ll be locked up and have your life ruined. If you open a bag of chips in Vons you’ll be detained and Mara Elliott will pursue the charges for eating a bag of chips even as she drops cases against them for crimes of moral turpitude.

    The police are not there for me, I have to fend for myself. I vote republican since I’m 18 – but the police here are a net negative, I may be subject to fines or arrest but career criminals are not. I know they blame politicians and state laws and I hear you, but in your current state I do not need you and I do not want you regardless of whose fault it is.

  2. What are the “Priority 4” calls that take priority over Priority 1, 2, & 3? Moving houseless residents from place to place, having their vehicle as last shelter before the street towed?

  3. This article lacks a lot of information like the number of calls per category, clear definitions of the different priorities (1-4) since emergency is its own category, what time of day do each category of call hit their peak …

    That said, the Police department should create a new tier of officer to handle lesser priority calls – noise complaints (loud parties, dog barking, etc.) and other quality of life issues, traffic lights not working, fender benders…If those types of calls are handled by other than sworn officers, I’m sure response times would go down for higher priority calls.

    Or would the police union take issue with that?

  4. This quote from Chief Neislit struck me. “At the time, the chief wrote that the department had 1,629 “available” officers – down from just under 1,700 five years earlier.” The difference between 1629 and 1700 is only 71. So in Aug. 2022 the staffing was the lowest it had been in 15 years but that meant at most they were down 70 officers. The way this is written makes it sound way worse than it is in reality. Also when comparing data by a percentage difference it can also be mis-leading. 2 is 100% more than 1, so we need to know what the actual difference in response time is in minutes. I am not debating that response times by police are longer and even too long, but let’s not make it look worse than it really is.

    1. be real. the politicians nor police officials have a clue as to what to do. it will cost money to get out of “the police shortage”. lets see how long it takes them to realize it and do something about it.

  5. It is not the fault of the bulls, honey! We are a criminal city run amok with very sick people. San Diegans quite frankly do not know right from wrong. Most residents suffer the malaise of insanity. The Governor needs to call in the Guard to restore civility. The mayor needs to address our state of emergency! I’m not on a bender and not fibbing, doll!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.