Sherland Martin’s wary view of the New Orleans Police Department turned downright sour last year after her car vanished from her mom’s house on Ebbtide Drive with her two iPhones inside.
Seventh District officers never showed up, the schoolteacher said, then were slow to contact Verizon and her vehicle-tracking firm to get a bead on her 2010 Lexus IS250.
She went to the district station, and several hours later an officer dialed her husband and “tells him where my car is, and to go out there and see if it’s really there and give them a call and they’ll run a unit out there,” she said.
Her husband jumped in his Ford F-150 and found the Lexus in Algiers, the thief still behind the wheel. A brief chase ensued as her cousin called police from the passenger seat.
“They’re telling my husband: ‘Are you certain it’s your car? We have a lack of units, and we don’t want to send a unit out,’” Martin said shortly after the March 28, 2014 crime. Jefferson Parish deputies later found her Lexus, which had been used in other vehicle break-ins, Martin said.
“I do believe they’re understaffed, but I also believe they were lazy,” she said. “You have a lot of stuff that’s going on, but this is an easy case to solve, right then and there. You wouldn’t have to work that hard. I’ve never trusted them before, but really now it’s kind of scary. Who can you call?”
The answer: You can call 911, but in New Orleans East — above all other areas in the city — you may find yourself marking the time by sundial.
A New Orleans Advocate/WWL-TV analysis of every police emergency call since 2010 found that response times in the 7th District, which covers the bulk of New Orleans East, are nearly twice as long as they are citywide, and four times as long as they were in the district in 2010.
It now takes an average of two hours, 27 minutes for police to arrive in the 7th, up from 35 minutes just three years ago. The most serious, “Priority 2” calls also take far longer in the district, averaging almost 29 minutes for an officer to reach the scene — a full nine minutes above the city average.
So far this year, there have been more than 100 emergency calls in which police in the 7th District took at least a day and a half to respond, including reports of hit-and-run accidents, burglary, theft and battery.
“Clearly, we have to do better,” said City Councilmember James Gray, who represents the area. “Clearly, we cannot ask our citizens to tolerate these times, and we’re working on it.”
That the 7th endures the slowest police response times in the city probably comes as little surprise to residents of an area that produces more emergency calls than any other district, across more square miles. The vast swath of terrain covered by 7th District cops reaches from the urban edge of the Industrial Canal east to the grassy wilds of Irish Bayou and beyond.
It is also among the city’s most crime-ridden districts. The number of crimes reported to the FBI from the 7th rose from 2,866 in 2012 to 3,396 in 2014, an 18 percent increase. Homicides have claimed 32 lives there so far this year.
For residents, the rising response times add to a gnawing sense of being forgotten, and a feeling that as the East struggles against crime, the bad guys are winning.
“They don’t care if it’s 7 o’clock in the morning, 7 o’clock at night. It just doesn’t matter,” said Pearl Cantrelle, president of the Kenilworth Civic Improvement Association. “They understand fully that this is a picnic for them.”
In the area nearest Cantrelle, response times have risen over five years from 40 minutes on average to just shy of two hours.
For the thinned ranks of the NOPD, keeping up with a bloated inbox of emergency calls in the East has become next to impossible, current and former 7th District officers say.
The overall decrease in NOPD staffing, from 1,525 officers in 2010 to 1,154 now, echoes through the city’s eight police districts, and the 7th is no exception. Staffing of front-line officers and sergeants in the district fell from 95 in 2009 to 74 as of early this year. But even that diminished figure is misleading, officers say.
Three platoons responsible for answering calls for service in the 7th number 12 to 15 officers each, NOPD manpower reports show. But often just a handful of cops in each shift appear at roll call, where they can count on being handed the most pressing calls in a stack left from the prior shift.
“I can tell you it’s a mess,” said retired Officer Michael Richter, who left the force last year after 32 years, most of it working nights in the 7th District. "I used to get calls that were dispatched on the second watch, and I would get them assigned on the night shift. Sometimes they would come out at 2 o’clock and I would get them at (midnight).”
“Some nights for us, there were just four people on patrol to actually answer calls. Once or twice, there were maybe only two of us,” he added.
Even given the dismal response times citywide, the 7th District is an outlier. The district was dead last in responding to nearly every category of major crime, including violent attacks, robberies, burglaries and domestic disturbances. In most cases, it wasn’t even close.
Among the findings of The Advocate/WWL-TV analysis:
A burglary victim in New Orleans East can expect to wait more than seven hours for a police unit, almost two hours longer than in the next-slowest district — the 3rd — and more than three hours longer than the city-wide average.
It takes an average of two hours and 41 minutes for a 7th District officer to reach a potentially explosive domestic dispute, more than an hour longer than the citywide average and two hours longer than the quickest district, the 4th in Algiers.
Reports of aggravated battery, such as shootings, draw 7th District cops to the scene in about two hours on average, almost twice as long as the city-wide average. The district is rivaled only by the downriver 5th, which includes the Lower 9th Ward. Every other district managed to be on the scene of aggravated batteries in less than 47 minutes on average.
Armed robbery victims can expect a police response in 35 minutes in the East, 11 minutes longer than the city average.
Homicides are one crime where the 7th District is still in line with the city average. An officer averaged about 12 minutes and 9 seconds to respond to a homicide in the East, just 10 seconds shy of the city average but more than three times slower than the 8th District, which had the quickest responses.
Murders may also be one area where the common wisdom about the challenges of covering such a wide territory hold some weight. It took five minutes and 45 seconds for 7th District officers to arrive on a homicide scene after they were dispatched, about two to three minutes slower than most others.
The huge size of the 7th is often cited as the primary obstacle that its officers face. Yet, call records show that the bulk of the rising delays in police response times in the East comes not from long drives, but from calls that sit in a queue waiting for an officer to come available.
Callers in the 7th District wait on average about two hours and 19 minutes before dispatchers even find an officer free to take the call. The time it takes them to actually drive to the scene is a relatively brisk nine minutes and 11 seconds on average, the data show — similar to every other district in the city, and actually less than the compact 2nd District Uptown.
The data also show that the 7th sees more calls for service, per officer, than any other district.
Yet, the data show that at least some of the backlog may be blamed on 7th District officers taking longer to finish working an incident than cops in any other district, leaving calls to pile up. Officers in New Orleans East spent an average of more than an hour on the scene of an incident this year, more than 20 minutes longer than 2nd District, where officers are the quickest to close out scenes.
One 7th District officer who spoke under condition of anonymity — officers are forbidden from speaking to the media — said he often is among just a handful of cops fielding calls on his shift. Like many cops citywide, he blames increased paperwork, checklists, vehicle and body-worn camera inspections and other tasks that now fall to the rank-and-file under the spyglass of federal court-monitored police reforms set in motion three years ago.
“They’ve even said, ‘We’re not even worried about the backlog, but make sure all your cameras are labeled and the trip sheet is complete,’” he said.
The officer cited a cumulative effect from the dearth of officers on the street, saying he is often waiting for backup until a colleague can break free from another call.
“It makes you kind of back down. Instead of just rushing in like you may have in the past, you sit on the side of the road. Whenever somebody gets clear, then I’ll go,” he said. “It’s a big difference when I knew somebody was coming automatically, versus now. I don’t know whether (backup) is coming or not.”
Responding to some calls two or even three days later means that “sometimes it’s just luck of the draw. Somebody may just happen to be there,” he said.
New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison, who served as commander of the 7th District before becoming the city’s top cop last year, said the 7th also leads the city in false alarms. Harrison pointed to changes he is making to clear many false alarms from the stack of calls requiring an officer response.
Harrison also said manpower levels in the 7th exceed most other districts.
The district “is staffed a little heavier than some of the other districts by design,” Harrison said, “because they have somewhat farther to travel, because sometimes, especially in the evening hours, the calls for service (are) double and sometimes triple what some of the other districts are getting.”
Even so, as officials lavish law enforcers from both State Police and private patrols on the French Quarter, residents in the East frequently express dismay at feeling left behind.
“The only thing I can see, they’re putting more resources in the French Quarter and the CBD and taking more resources from the 7th District,” Cantrelle said.
There is no data showing that the NOPD has shifted regular on-duty officers away from the 7th. Gray said the NOPD has been responsive to his requests for more cars patrolling the East’s broad boulevards, but that more must be done.
“We have been demanding more officers, we have gotten more, but apparently we need to get even more,” said Gray.
Some have learned to live with the wait.
Far out along Chef Menteur Highway, residents of scenic Venetian Isles and Lake St. Catherine have long embraced their identities as small fishing villages inside the borders of a metropolis.
“We know we’re way out here in the godforsaken country. But hey, we like it like that. You have to pay a price for that,” said Cleve Bell, president of the neighborhood association in Venetian Isles, where average police response times have shot up from 44 minutes in 2010 to just shy of two hours.
“If it’s something minor, you’re going to spend a day waiting for someone to come out. As big as this area is, for the few policemen they have out here, it’s amazing we get any protection.”
Staff writer Gordon Russell contributed to this story. Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.