The New Orleans Police Department said Monday that police response times have dropped from the historic highs they reached last fall as a result of better management practices and the redeployment of dozens of cops to the streets.
The average time it took officers to respond to a high-priority 911 call hit more than 20 minutes in October. Since then, Police Department statistics show that officers have been able to achieve as much as a 43 percent decrease, to a low of an 11.5-minute average response time at the start of March.
Police Superintendent Michael Harrison acknowledged that the NOPD still has much work to do in driving down high response times, which were highlighted by a New Orleans Advocate/WWL-TV investigation in October. But Harrison said the drop recorded since then proves that the department has begun to rein in the problem.
“I heard you loud and clearly toward the end of the year when the citizens of New Orleans, when our visitors, told us we’re taking far too long to get to calls,” Harrison said. “Overwhelmingly, citizens said, ‘Chief, this is what you should be focusing on.’ So that’s exactly what we’ve started doing, all the way down to every single second.”
One analyst said it is too soon to tell whether the force’s post-Mardi Gras redeployment of 54 officers to patrol duties has had any measurable effect on response times, and a police union official questioned whether the drop has really been as sharp as the department claims.
Still, the reduction in response times gives City Hall something to cheer about as it asks New Orleans voters to approve a millage on the April 9 ballot that would bring in millions of dollars a year to hire more officers.
According to statistics provided by the NOPD, responses to emergency calls in early March averaged a bit more than 11.5 minutes. That’s faster than in any week since late 2013, the year the department’s response to 911 calls began seriously lagging as a result of the force’s dropping headcount.
An analysis by The New Orleans Advocate of the latest numbers suggests the biggest impacts came from paring down the time it takes officers to get to calls in districts where victims have had the longest waits.
The best-performing districts, such as the 4th District in Algiers, have averaged monthly response times of between 12 minutes and 14 minutes so far this year, about the same range as they did through 2015.
While the slowest districts, including the huge 7th District in New Orleans East, remain far behind, they are beginning to catch up. With an average response time of about 26 minutes in February, the 7th District arrived to calls about 10 minutes sooner than it did last summer.
The NOPD’s discussion of the new statistics focused on its response to emergency calls where time matters most. Those include acts of violence, crimes in progress and situations where a victim may be in danger.
Less serious calls also have been getting faster responses in recent months, but the trends are much less steady for those incidents.
An average lower-priority call would get a response in less than 70 minutes in the first week of March, a wait that was about 10 minutes longer than in 2013. But response times to those types of calls also have spiked over the course of 2016. In the most extreme case, it took officers more than 2.5 hours to get to nonemergency calls during the week of Mardi Gras.
Harrison said the biggest factor in driving down response times appears to be a shift from a three-platoon to a five-platoon system in the department’s eight geographic districts. Some officers in all of those districts have been directed to stay on the streets during normal shift changes, when many of the worst spikes in response times occurred.
At the same time, Harrison said, department brass have tasked district commanders with keeping a close eye on response times in every shift.
That new directive has been on display in weekly department briefings where district commanders are grilled on the handling of individual 911 calls.
“Just getting smarter about the deployment, having an officer in the field answer calls during the shift change, that has helped tremendously,” Harrison said.
Capt. Michael Glasser, president of the Police Association of New Orleans, questioned how much of an impact those management shifts have really had on reducing response times. He wonders whether “dumb luck” or the time frame chosen by the Police Department explains some of the drop.
“The addition of one cop or two cops for an hour during shift changes cuts your response times in half? Do you think that’s reasonable? I don’t think so,” Glasser said. “I’d have to have a little bit better explanation.”
Just how much of the decline — if any — stems from the redeployment of officers from nonpatrol duties to the streets is unclear. The Police Department said 54 officers were moved in the week of Feb. 21 from jobs in administration, community affairs, maintenance and elsewhere to the eight patrol districts.
“We can say for certain that NOPD’s changes since the end of October have clearly demonstrated reduced response times for both emergency calls and nonemergency calls,” said Jeff Asher, a former city crime analyst. “The evidence is not as strong that the redeployment has substantially affected response times.”
The department remains short of hitting its goal of responding to 90 percent of emergency calls within seven minutes, according to Asher’s analysis of an NOPD database on calls for service.
“It’s a really lofty goal,” he said.
Police instead are responding to emergency calls within seven minutes about 81 to 82 percent of the time, Asher said.
The bigger challenge lies in responding to lower-priority, nonemergency calls. The Police Department would like to answer those calls within 14 minutes 90 percent of the time. But so far, Asher said, it is hitting that mark only about 55 percent of the time.
The Police Department said it is still in the process of redeploying an additional 40 officers to the streets. Harrison also promised further initiatives to make the force more efficient, including electronic warrants and electronic citations to cut down on the time officers spend processing paperwork.