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Calling 911? Expect a longer wait for an officer

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

More violent crime. More 911 calls. Fewer cops.

Add the three together and it takes longer to get an Albuquerque police officer when you call 911.

Every year for the past five years, response time to the most serious calls for service to the Albuquerque Police Department has risen and is now 2 minutes and 16 seconds slower than in 2010, according to city documents.

A00_jd_03jul_APD-Response-times-2015Officers’ response time to “Priority 1” calls – which include shootings, robberies, finding dead bodies and car wrecks with injuries – is 11 minutes and 12 seconds midway through 2015.

Officials say the rising response time is a side effect of the dwindling police force, which has reached its lowest number of officers since 2001, and an increasing number of calls for service. And there are other factors, such as more violent crime and a population increase that have buried police officers on patrol.

“I think the (police) chief has us on the right track,” Mayor Richard Berry said in an interview. “I think he will stabilize it … We want (the response time) to stabilize, and we want it to be within an acceptable range.”

Police and city officials said the department is trying to improve its response time by recruiting more officers, keeping existing officers on the force and sending police officers doing administrative duties back into the field and replacing them with civilian hires.

“I’m very concerned for our citizens and our police officers. I think (the officers) are overwhelmed with Priority 1 calls,” City Councilor Ken Sanchez said. “I think it has to be one of the main issues our city needs to address.”

Midway through the 2015 fiscal year, which ended June 30, the department’s response time to those calls was 10:43, compared with a response time in the 2010 fiscal year of 8:56. Every year since then, the average time from when a 911 call was made to a police officer arriving on scene was longer, according to city documents.

For the 2015 fiscal year, a goal was set for the police department to respond to Priority 1 calls in 10 minutes flat. But according to city figures covering most of the fiscal year, officers were 43 seconds off that pace.

“Nobody’s proud of it,” said Shaun Willoughby, the vice president of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association. “In a Priority 1 call, 45 seconds is the difference between life and death.”

Police response times throughout the country vary from city to city.

In 2009, the University of New Mexico completed a study and found APD at that time responded to 911 calls faster than Denver police and the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office, but the department was slower than police in Fort Worth, Oklahoma City, Salt Lake City and Tucson, Ariz.

Currently, the BCSO’s average response time to Priority 1 calls, defined as calls regarding “any threat to life or property,” is 10:36 between citizen call-in and when the first deputy arrives on scene, said BCSO spokesman Sgt. Aaron Williamson, or slightly better than APD’s response time.

Celina Espinoza, an Albuquerque police spokeswoman, said the slower APD response times are a result of fewer officers responding to more calls for service. And in 2014, violent crimes were up 14 percent from the year before, and those cases require a lengthy police response.

She also said officers are spending more time on certain calls as they work to resolve situations peacefully using crisis intervention training.

“It’s a multifaceted issue … that we are all dealing with, and we are doing our best at all times,” she said. “I think we are doing things to help.”

The U.S. Department of Justice found that APD has a culture of excessive force, and the city is under a court order to implement changes to alter that.

An APD officer stands at the ready in a Northeast Albuquerque neighborhood last summer as his colleagues search for a suspect who fled from police. The rise in police response times in recent years has been attributed to an increase in calls for service being handled by the smallest number of officers since 2001. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

An APD officer stands at the ready in a Northeast Albuquerque neighborhood last summer as his colleagues search for a suspect who fled from police. The rise in police response times in recent years has been attributed to an increase in calls for service being handled by the smallest number of officers since 2001. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Meanwhile, calls have continued to increase. In the 2013 fiscal year, police responded to 65,429 Priority 1 calls and then 67,175 calls the next year. Midway through the current fiscal year, the department was on pace to take more than 69,000 Priority 1 calls, according to city documents.

As the number of calls has gone up, the number of officers has dropped. At one point in April, APD had its fewest number of officers since 2001 with just 878.

And only 404 officers were assigned to field services, which means they are responding to calls. The force is budgeted for 1,000 officers.

Police Chief Gorden Eden previously said he has shuffled officers’ assignments to get more police officers in the field. Earlier this year, he reassigned police officers who were working in records and the crime lab back to patrol.

And Berry said Eden just recently did the same with officers who were fingerprinting suspects. Officers assigned to specialty units, like the bomb squad and SWAT team, are now doing regular patrol shifts.

Espinoza said besides reshuffling some officers, the best things they can do to decrease response time is to keep current officers on the job and recruit new ones. She said the police department currently has more police recruits than any time in recent memory. A recruit is an applicant who has passed the physical and written portions of the police tests and is awaiting a background check to get into a police academy, Espinoza said.

In an attempt to find out why so many officers are retiring, the city surveyed retiring officers. Lack of support from city officials received the highest ranking. Concerns with the department’s leadership and a lack of support from the administration were close behind, according to the report. Those concerns were followed fairly closely by unhappiness with the news media.

Police response times were a point of debate in the 2013 mayoral election. Berry’s opponent tried to show the city’s public safety was threatened by slowing response times. That was when the data showed police responded to Priority 1 calls in 10:11.

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