Sofia Froeba never needed the police like she did the night of the attack — the night a good Samaritan called 911 while she lay bloodied and barely conscious on a French Quarter sidewalk.
That January evening, a mugger who still remains at large choked Froeba until she passed out and took her SUV, as well as two cellphones. Also gone is her sense of security — a void left not just because of the attack but the time it took for Froeba to get the police on her case.
Even with her wounds healed — she bears a mark on the back of her head from the initial blow — Froeba still reflexively checks the back seat of her car for assailants, a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It’s something I deal with every day,” Froeba said in a recent interview. “I feel like I’m always looking over my shoulder.”
The New Orleans Police Department has no record of an officer ever responding to the scene of the Jan. 11 carjacking. It took Froeba nearly two months to get the department to even document the crime in a report. “It makes me feel like just a number,” she said.
Far from an anomaly, Froeba’s ordeal illustrates the perilous lag time New Orleanians are increasingly enduring after emergencies — a crisis that is starting to make residents wonder if the NOPD can handle the fundamental job of protecting citizens and catching criminals.
Interminable waits have become typical for victims of violent crime, even in situations when their lives may hang in the balance; a New Orleans Advocate/ WWL-TV analysis revealed that officers are taking more than three times longer than they did five years ago to respond to calls for service.
Behind the data are stories that illuminate exactly what it means when response times grow.
Here's a look at police response times in 2010:
Fast forward to 2015 and notice the difference in response times:
Another example is the case of a 28-year-old mother of three who called authorities last year after her drug-addled ex-boyfriend barged into her Broadmoor home, assaulted her with a kitchen knife and pushed her into a bathtub full of water. Police took three hours to respond, apparently because there simply were no officers available to come sooner.
In another case, an insurance adjuster beat police to the scene of a domestic disturbance in New Orleans East that had devolved into a chaotic home invasion. Hours after the 911 call, when an officer finally arrived, he made note of “broken chairs, scattered items and a red substance that appeared to be blood spread across the floors and walls of the residence.”
On average, New Orleans police needed 24 minutes to get to the scene of a crime in 2010, according to a review of 2.7 million calls for service. That compares with one hour and 19 minutes today. Even the most urgent calls, referred to by the department as “Code 2,” generate a 20-minute response — twice the rate recorded five years ago. In the department’s 8th District, which encompasses the French Quarter, the city’s marquee tourist attraction, the average police response now stands at 13 minutes and 16 seconds, a 71 percent increase since 2010.
In many cases, the delayed involvement of law enforcement hampers any follow-up investigation. It also may be skewing the city’s purported crime rate, because officers are increasingly arriving so late to calls that they are written off as “unfounded.” It’s a designation that officially means a crime did not happen, but in at least some cases, officers are getting to the scene after both the victim and perpetrator have taken off.
In Froeba’s case, for instance, New Orleans police would not have reported the robbery in its annual crime reports had Froeba not been persistent.
“We are just now beginning to comprehend the impacts of the manpower (shortage), and the community is paying the price for this in the form of frustration, in the form of fear,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission. “It creates a disincentive for citizens to report future crimes because of their prior bad experience in waiting.”
The January carjacking happened just as Froeba had been heading out for a late-night grocery run. A man struck her with the side of a pistol near the intersection of St. Ann and Royal streets and forced her into her vehicle, where they began to struggle.
“I told him that he could just take everything,” she said. “He was trying to choke me out in the vehicle.”
At some point, Froeba lost consciousness. She found herself in a pool of her own blood when she came to. Her 2008 Mercury Mountaineer had been stolen, along with her purse and two cellphones.
A passer-by stopped to help. They phoned Froeba’s boyfriend and, at 3:04 a.m., New Orleans police. The boyfriend, Brian Ethridge, left work in a panic and ran to the crime scene, where they all waited for an ambulance.
“She could barely move and was crying,” Ethridge said. “I cried too. I’ve never felt so helpless in my life.”
Froeba and Ethridge both insisted that no police officer responded to the scene and that they didn’t speak with an officer until Froeba had been taken to the hospital.
Tyler Gamble, an NOPD spokesman, said there are indications an officer may have gone to the scene about 25 minutes after the initial 911 call — about the time Emergency Medical Services took the wounded woman to the hospital — but the officer’s arrival time was not recorded.
Several hours after the attack, officers went to the hospital only to discover that Froeba had been released.
Police placed a single call to Froeba at 9:41 a.m. — perhaps to her stolen cellphone, though it’s unclear from a police report — and marked the attack “unfounded” after she didn’t answer. The report makes no mention of a detective Froeba insists she spoke with while she was still in the hospital.
At any rate, Froeba spent the next two months trying to interest the NOPD in her case. Finally, on March 5, an officer at the 8th District took a report of the armed robbery. That report notes the woman had come “to the station numerous times over the two-month period looking for a specific detective to investigate her case without knowing that any detective or officer could assist her.”
The NOPD offered little elaboration — beyond the familiar backlog of calls — for its delayed response to an aggravated burglary that happened in April 2014 in the 3700 block of Milan Street. A 28-year-old mother told her ex-boyfriend to leave her home that morning, according to a police report.
But the man persisted, demanding to speak about their relationship. He “became enraged,” the report says, “and used his body to push the front door of the residence open.”
Frightened, the woman called police from her cellphone. The man, Joseph Pitts, walked out of the home after the woman called police but loitered on the porch. In the absence of law enforcement, he accosted the woman again 15 minutes later when she stepped outside to check the mail.
“Pitts began to strike her about the face with a closed fist,” the police report says, “causing her to flee the residence through the front door.”
Pitts — who later admitted to the attack and was sentenced to five years behind bars — grabbed the woman by the shirt and pulled her back inside, continuing to pummel her face. He followed the woman into the children’s bedroom, still grilling her about the status of their relationship. Then he pulled a knife out of his pocket and lunged at the woman, the report says, “striking her in the lower left side of her chin.”
The woman went to the bathroom to see how serious the cut was and was followed by Pitts, who punched her in the face again and pushed her into a bathtub filled with water.
The woman managed to flee the residence about 9 a.m. and began walking toward the home of her aunt, who saw her niece crying and bleeding from the face as she approached. As the two returned to the woman’s home, the woman’s aunt spotted Pitts, wearing a blood-stained shirt. She, too, notified the police, who finally arrived at the home two hours and 57 minutes after the initial call, according to city data.
Pitts was booked with aggravated battery by cutting and two counts of aggravated burglary.
“When you call for the police, the only thing worse, in my opinion, than not preventing the crime is to not respond to people” when they report it, said Michael Glasser, president of the Police Association of New Orleans. “If somebody calls the police, I personally believe they have the right to expect the police.”
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Advocate staff writer Matt Sledge and WWL-TV reporters David Hammer and Mike Perlstein contributed to this article. Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.