As police response times throughout New Orleans rise to alarming rates, City Council members grilled Police Superintendent Michael Harrison on Thursday about how he plans to ensure officers arrive at crime scenes in a more timely manner.
Although the council’s hearing was nominally about the department’s $160 million proposed budget for next year, the main topic of discussion was the dismal statistics that show the department struggling to respond to calls.
The average NOPD response time is now about one hour and 19 minutes, triple what it was in 2010, according to an analysis by The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV. Even on high-priority calls, the wait has doubled, and victims can expect to wait to see an officer for about 20 minutes.
Though Harrison said the department is projecting a more than 6 percent drop in overall crime for the year, council members said that’s not reflected in the fear and frustration they hear from constituents in the wake of high-profile armed robberies and other crimes.
“These are good things to hear, but I don’t think we’re feeling them out there,” Councilwoman Susan Guidry said. “Robberies are more brazen — happening all hours of the day, all kinds of places.”
Councilman James Gray focused on the especially dismal response times in the 7th District, which, like his council district, covers New Orleans East. The 7th District has consistently been the slowest to respond to calls, with the average wait for an officer now clocking in at two hours and 27 minutes. It takes officers there an average of 29 minutes to respond even to high-priority calls, nine minutes longer than the citywide average.
“It seems to me a logical thing would be to give them more people. I know we’ve had conversations and you’ve told me you’ve done that, but still we get reports that we’re way out of line in terms of response times with the rest of the city,” Gray said. “We should see to it … that no part of the city is suffering a bigger burden than any other part of the city.”
Gray asked whether the department could do better in informing residents that it will take a while for an officer to arrive. The NOPD’s policy is to call a complainant when it’s expected officers will take more than an hour to arrive, Harrison said.
Although some observers point to the federal consent decree the department is now under as a reason for longer response times, saying it requires more documentation on the part of officers, Guidry warned Harrison not to blame the decree, which is aimed at ensuring the department is operated in a lawful manner.
“I would strongly suggest … that not be a message you give to the police officers,” Guidry said. “Doing the paperwork to prove that they have their car cameras and body cameras on … creates the accountability that makes it a better police force .”
“We don’t blame the consent decree,” Harrison said.
The decree will cost the city about $7.55 million next year.
Guidry also zeroed in on the potential that slow response times will result in more crimes going uninvestigated as officers arrive at a scene, find the victim is no longer there and mark the incident as “unfounded,” meaning it won’t be included in crime statistics.
That was at least initially the case when a San Diego man was left paralyzed after a beating on Frenchmen Street this month. Officers did not make it to the scene for 40 minutes, at which point the man had been taken to the hospital.
The “unfounded” designation is supposed to be used only when it’s been determined a crime did not occur. Another category, “gone on arrival,” is supposed to be used in cases where the complainant is no longer on the scene when officers arrive.
Harrison said he’s looking into that specific case and the general use of the “unfounded” designation, which he said is supposed to require a supervisor’s approval.
“I’ve asked those very questions because they need to be answered, and people need to be held accountable,” he said.
Overall, the bulk of the blame for long response times has fallen on the decline in the number of officers on the street. The budget for next year includes funding for an additional 128 officers, and the department plans to ask for permission to raise a recruitment bonus it pays to cops who refer new hires from $1,000 to $4,000.
“The most important thing we can do is provide you with the ability to get more of your officers on the streets responding to calls for service” and free up officers now dealing with tasks that don’t require commissioned law enforcement officers, Councilwoman Stacy Head said.
About 32 officers working desk duty have been reassigned to the streets, Harrison said. Others who are not out in the field are now assigned to speak with victims of minor, nonviolent crimes by phone to free cops on patrol for more serious incidents. More than 700 incidents have been dealt with that way since August, Harrison said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.