If you call 911 in New Orleans and police don’t give you the time of day, check your watch. The reason may be the time of day.
Police response times rise sharply during the hours when one NOPD patrol shift punches out and the next one comes on duty, according to an analysis of 911 call data by former city crime analyst Jeff Asher.
And the most glaring spikes show up in calls that emergency dispatchers and police deem the most urgent: “Code 2” reports of domestic abuse, shootings, murders and other crimes for which minutes can be precious.
In some districts, emergency callers at shift-change time can wait three or even four times longer for an officer to reach a potentially volatile scene than if they’d called an hour earlier or later, the data show.
The added wait times also appear, like clockwork, with lesser crime reports that make up the majority of emergency calls. Such “Code 1” calls range from relatively serious incidents, such as armed robberies and burglaries where the victim is no longer in danger, to more mundane ones, like reports of fistfights or suspicious persons.
In both categories, response times shoot up by varying degrees in all eight New Orleans police districts, during all three daily platoon shift changes, whether the total volume of 911 calls rises or falls.
The analysis of call data from Jan. 1 to Oct. 29 of this year hones in on a sore spot for the New Orleans Police Department as it begins to grapple with overall emergency response times that have ballooned citywide since 2010, according to a recent investigation by The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV.
NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison readily acknowledged the troubles during shift changes in an interview with The Advocate.
He said he’s making short-term fixes to narrow the gap as the city slowly builds back a force that has seen its ranks fall by some 400 officers since Mayor Mitch Landrieu took office five years ago and froze police hiring amid a yawning city budget deficit.
According to NOPD manpower reports, staffing in the city’s eight police districts fell by 24 percent from October 2011 to last month, a loss of 200 district officers. Some districts now have just a handful of officers to field emergency calls on any given shift.
Along with smaller platoons, the shrinking ranks have brought reductions in the number of district task forces made up of officers who could help fill the gaps during shift changes. Each district now has just one task force of six to eight officers, spread out over seven days and three shifts, where they once had two task forces and a narcotics unit, Harrison said.
Staggering the shifts
Within the past few weeks, Harrison has directed district commanders to stagger more officers, bringing some in early to fill the void during shift changes, which take place in the 6 a.m., 2 p.m. and 10 p.m. hours.
Harrison said he deployed that kind of “power watch” while he was commander of the NOPD’s 7th District, a post he held until becoming chief last year. Residents of the 7th District, which includes almost all of New Orleans East, endure the city’s slowest average response times by far.
“All of our commanders have been instructed to make sure there are overlapping officers on those shift changes so we can close those gaps, especially for emergency calls that have the highest priority, where people’s lives are in danger,” Harrison said.
The department-wide directive has shown promising early results in reducing response times during the changeovers, Harrison said. But it also means a trade-off, with fewer cops on regular shifts, and more time-consuming roll calls to brief the staggered officers.
“It’s never really been a secret. We’ve always known it,” he said of the problem. “We knew it, and we worked with it. But two things happened: The number of officers decreased and the volume of work increased. The need for transparency, the need for accuracy and accountability, increased.”
Within the past few weeks, Harrison said, the department has convened focus groups of patrol officers and their supervisors to study “every single aspect of their day and what they spend their time on,” and to determine what’s keeping them from quickly hitting the streets. Jonathan Aronie, who leads the federal monitoring team tracking progress on a raft of NOPD reforms under the watch of U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan, is involved in the focus groups, Harrison said.
Much of the discussion in a court conference last week with Morgan focused on the early feedback from the groups, and which, if any, of officers’ newfound duties can be streamlined without violating the terms of the federal consent decree.
Some patrol officers blame new protocols and paperwork, saying the slower response times are an unintended consequence of the added requirements under the decree.
They point to added checklists, report-writing demands and inspections of vehicle and body cameras before they can roll out on patrol. To ignore the new requirements risks incurring a suspension.
“It’s a lot of unnecessary checks and balances pertaining to tedious purposes,” said one veteran patrol officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because NOPD policy forbids talking to the media. “The approximate time away dealing with the tedious stuff we have to deal with, it adds an extra 20 minutes.”
Harrison insisted that district roll calls, which start a patrol officer’s shift, don’t seem to be getting longer, but he echoed the view of officers who say they’re strapped with more preparations.
“To become better, we may have to move a little slower,” Harrison said. “We realize some of our mandates may be actually causing higher response times. What we’re trying to figure out is whether we can eliminate, consolidate or civilianize part of that.”
Harrison also cited the added demands on officers of logging footage from body-worn and vehicle cameras as a factor in dragging out response times.
When his predecessor, Ronal Serpas, began rolling out the body cameras to hundreds of NOPD officers in mid-2014, they weren’t covered under the sprawling reform package that Landrieu and then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder signed in July 2012.
But Morgan and the monitoring team quickly swept them into their sphere of oversight, with the judge pressing NOPD brass at a public hearing to mete out discipline to officers who fail to use the cameras properly. NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble said the department started disciplining officers for violations of body-worn camera policy last fall.
“Officers are saying, ‘I got a family, kids to feed.’ Nobody wants to get written up,” said the anonymous patrol cop. “There are certain things you have to do before you pull that car out of the parking lot, mandated by the consent decree. Put it on the trip sheet: This works, that works. You get inside your police car, you have the automatic vehicle locator. If any of those are not working, per the consent decree, we have to notify our rank, also email the supervisor before you pull out of the driveway, saying it doesn’t work.”
Theory vs. practice
Like most police agencies, the NOPD operates on a three-platoon system. First Watch starts at 6:25 a.m., 35 minutes before the graveyard shift is over, and it ends at 3 p.m., overlapping the Second Watch by 35 minutes. Third Watch starts at 10:25 p.m., with the same 35-minute overlap.
In theory, that makes for double the patrol force over those 35-minute spans, three times a day. In practice, it means few officers responding to calls on either end of their shifts as they await an exchange of patrol cars and gear, said Donovan Livaccari, spokesman for the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge.
“As much as you try to make the overlap count, you don’t give a guy a burglary investigation who’s getting off in 15 minutes. It just doesn’t make sense to pay overtime to do that, so those calls have always held for the next watch,” Livaccari said.
“I think it has always been that way to some extent, but I don’t recall ever really having these big backlogs like they have right now.”
Whatever the causes, the result is stark delays in responding to emergency calls.
Average response times for Code 2 calls rise by 265 percent in the 6 a.m. hour — from a little over 8 minutes in the previous hour to 21 minutes, 29 seconds. Then they drop back to 10 minutes in the 7 a.m. hour.
The next spike arises in the 2 p.m. hour, as First Watch gives way to Second Watch. Average response times for Code 2 calls rise from about 12 minutes to more than 20 minutes before falling back to 14 minutes over the following hour.
Just as suddenly, emergency response times nearly double in the 10 p.m. hour, during the switch to Third Watch. They rise from 13 1/2 minutes to more than 26 minutes in that hour before dropping back under 15 minutes for the types of calls that police and dispatchers count as urgent.
Asher, the former city crime analyst, called identifying the problem with shift changes “almost a good thing.”
“Obviously it’s not good, but if that’s an explanation, it’s a correctable explanation” for some of the increase in police response times, he said.
To Asher, the data show more than just the impact of shift changes on response times.
At some point during the day, he said, the sheer volume of calls stacking up seems to overwhelm the patrol squads. That volume rises throughout the day, the data show.
Over the first 10 months of this year, the NOPD fielded 3,005 emergency calls in the 6 a.m. hour that dispatchers labeled as high-priority Code 2 reports.
That number rises to nearly 5,200 calls — a 73 percent increase — by the 2 p.m. hour.
The volume of emergency calls peaks in the 5 p.m. hour, at 6,191 Code 2 calls.
Then, call volume remains above 5,000 for Code 2 calls until midnight.
The delays during shift changes, Asher said, are merely a late-stage symptom.
“It’s a race against the volume. It feels like almost every day at some point they get overwhelmed and the call volume goes past a point from which they can respond in what you would consider a more acceptable time. Once you reach that point, you see the spiking of response times,” Asher said.
As its manpower has ebbed, the NOPD has cut way back on DWI arrests and citations for curfew violations and has made fewer arrests for gun and drug incidents. Those are the kinds of busts that suggest proactive policing, which has been sharply curtailed with fewer NOPD bodies.
Vast increases in police response times may be the last shoe to drop, Asher said.
“These are the canaries in a coal mine,” he said. “The shift change in itself, with a 1,600-person police force, may not make a big deal. But shift changes with a much smaller police force, whatever the cause may be, with the call volume already overwhelming them, could be a bigger deal. These are kind of the last straws.”
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.