While the New Orleans Police Department has succeeded in all but ending the practice of writing off calls for help as “unfounded” if the caller leaves the scene before an officer arrives, a sharp rise in the number of calls given a similar designation raises questions about whether the change has had concrete results.
Police are now marking most of those calls as “gone on arrival,” a category that means there will be some follow-up but essentially leaves reports of crimes uninvestigated unless an officer eventually is able to make contact.
The department is making more of an effort to reach out to those who call in a report of a crime but don’t wait for officers, who sometimes can take hours to arrive. Even so, a review of calls for service to the department shows that less than 1 percent of the nearly 12,000 calls marked “gone on arrival” this year have later been changed to another designation.
The response-time crisis at the New Orleans Police Department last year didn’t just mean calls weren’t being answered quickly. In thousands of cases, it meant calls essentially wouldn’t get any kind of investigation at all.
While it was against department policy, officers were marking incidents as “unfounded” when they arrived at a scene and the complainant had already left, sometimes after waiting for hours.
As response times grew, peaking at an average of 79 minutes through the first part of last year, so did the proportion of calls marked “unfounded.”
NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison pledged to end the practice, which he described as a “major training error,” after an analysis by The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV showed that nearly 18 percent of all calls received by the department in the first eight months of 2015 were listed as “unfounded” — a proportion nearly twice as high as in 2010.
A review of the department’s performance since then shows Harrison largely has succeeded in carrying out his promise, but it also leaves questions about whether the department is doing any better at following up on many calls.
Predictably, the length of time it takes for an officer to arrive on the scene has an impact on whether the complainant remains there until the officer shows up. In April, the average response time for calls marked “gone on arrival” was 1 hour and 39 minutes, about 50 minutes longer than the average for calls that resulted in a police report or other action by officers.
While calls marked “unfounded” were all but eliminated in the fall, calls that would have received that designation previously are now largely categorized as “gone on arrival.”
After Harrison told his officers to use the “unfounded” designation only when it was truly called for, the number of calls marked that way dropped from a few thousand a month to a few dozen.
At the same time, “gone on arrival” calls increased by about 2,000 a month, taking up most of the slack.
Combined, the two categories had made up 23 percent of calls in 2015. Now, they make up about 20 percent.
The “unfounded” calls were essentially eliminated in November, the same month The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV published their original analysis.
Harrison personally recorded a video to be shown at roll calls explaining how the department should be using the “unfounded” and “gone on arrival” designations.
The department also has begun following up on “gone on arrival” calls using its Alternative Police Response unit, composed of desk officers who call back to talk to victims and witnesses. Those officers can then complete a report on the incident or, if the situation warrants, send another unit to the scene, Harrison said.
The department’s brass now get daily reports on the number of “unfounded” and “gone on arrival” calls and monitor the follow-up.
“The (Alternative Police Response) unit will call that complainant back. If they’re not able to reach them at first, there are a number of attempts that are made, but we make those callbacks to those complainants to make sure we capture that data,” especially for major crime categories that are reported to the FBI and make up the city’s crime statistics, Harrison said.
In theory, there are stark differences between marking an incident “unfounded” and “gone on arrival.” The former means no crime occurred, meaning no follow-up is necessary. “Gone on arrival” suggests a crime may have happened and follow-up is needed to reach the person who first reported it.
But unless that follow-up is successful, there’s little practical difference between the two. Unless contact is eventually made, there’s no investigation into those incidents. Neither category is included in official crime statistics, something that may be holding down reported crime rates in the city.
Only 100 calls were changed from “gone on arrival” to a different category during the first quarter of 2016, a period when 11,749 calls were designated “gone on arrival” at some point, according to the NOPD’s database of calls for service.
However, additional follow-ups might not be shown in the records reviewed by The New Orleans Advocate.
Although the NOPD was asked for statistics showing how many follow-up calls are successful in reaching the original caller and eliciting information about the incident, the department has not provided any further information.
“We feel confident that we’re capturing those incidents that are crimes that we are mandated to report,” Harrison said.