When Charles Painter found more than $1,000 worth of his company’s brand new batteries stolen at a New Orleans truck stop last month, he knew it was a fresh heist. The batteries were left unattended for a short time, and when he came back, the boxes they came in were littered on the pavement.
“So I immediately called 911 to speak to NOPD,” Painter said.
Painter had heard about the police department’s slow response times, but at 6:30 a.m. on a Tuesday, he wondered, how long could it take?
So he waited. And waited. And waited some more.
“I slept on the seat in the truck. Watched it rain. Watched the sun come up,” he said.
According to Painter, and confirmed by NOPD dispatch records, the wait lasted until just after 10 a.m. the next day, nearly 28 hours after he first called for help. In that time, by contacting nearby scrap yards, he located his stolen batteries, essentially solving his own crime.
At that point, all Painter needed was a police report – or at least an item number –
to retrieve the stolen property. But even then he couldn’t get a quick response. Not from 911, not from the DA’s office, not even when he walked into to the 5th District police station.
“They said there was nobody there that could help me. They couldn't write me a report. They were backed up and there was nothing they could do,” Painter said.
“NOPD: Call Waiting,” the award-winning investigative series last year by WWL-TV and The New Orleans Advocate, revealed how a shortage of New Orleans police officers has resulted in unacceptably long response times, among the longest in the country over the past several years.
The department immediately launched a series of initiatives to put more officers on the street and make patrols more efficient. Looking at the statistics, those measures appear to be paying off. The average 2016 response times compared to last year shows general improvement, despite occasional spikes that lead to backlogs like the one endured by Charles Painter.
WWL-TV data analyst Jeff Asher compiled statistics covering the first eight months of 2016 and found overall improvements in responses to both in emergency and non-emergency calls.
The statistics, using the NOPD’s data, show that the average response time to all 911 calls so far in 2016 is one hour and 14 minutes, compared to one hour and 28 minutes last year. That’s represents a 15 percent improvement.
For emergency calls, known as Code 2 calls, the improvement is even better. The average response this year is just under 15 minutes compared to just under 19 minutes last year, a 20 percent improvement.
“The improvement is a real thing, it’s statistically significant,” Asher said. “Overall, what NOPD is doing is they're taking a lot of steps to improve efficiency of all responses.”
Over the past 18 months, NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison has launched efficiency measures such as telephone reporting for non-emergencies, moving dozens of officers from desk jobs to street patrols, and getting approval for a city ordinance to curb false burglar alarms.
“All of these initiatives are taking traction. Some haven't had full traction, but they're on the way to gaining full traction, giving us the free time to patrol and answer those calls,” Harrison said. “You’re seeing a sustained reduction.”
But the NOPD is still falling short of its self-imposed goals: answering 90 percent of all high-priority emergency calls within 7 minutes, and 90 percent of non-emergency calls within 14 minutes.
The department also falls short of a more modest benchmark, the response times from five years ago. That’s when the department was close to its budgeted troop strength of 1,600 officers, which compares to fewer than 1,200 officers now.
In 2011, the average response times were 27 minutes for all calls and just under 11 minutes for emergencies, the statistics show.
“Any improvement is good. But the bottom line is, as long as we remain hundreds of officers short we will never achieve the level of service that the public expects,” PANO President Michael Glasser said.
There are also periods when response times spike to levels that don’t even keep up with last year’s poor numbers. That can happen in a single police district when a major crime ties up a number of officers, or it can happen citywide during large events that require significant manpower.
“We’re chronically short-staffed,” Glasser said. “That means any major incident – a homicide, two shootings at the same time, a major vehicle crash – can drain manpower. And then we have a problem, because every officer is critical.”
For example, citywide response times for all calls have topped two hours twice in 2016: once during Mardi Gras week, and again in mid-July when the fatal shooting of three Baton Rouge police officers led Harrison ordered that, for safety reasons, all calls required two or more officers.
“Because they are operating on those razor-thin margin, it makes it difficult to continue to respond to and improve on the responses, especially to the lesser priorities,” Asher said.
Harrison acknowledged that the department has very little wiggle room when it comes to response times.
“Isolated incidents, like a single large incident that may take up a lot of manpower, could cause us to spike on that day, which could skew the numbers for an entire month,” he said.
But while the department waits for a more permanent fix by hiring more officers, Harrison said he continues to look at short-term initiatives that can help.
For example, he said he recently adopted technology that allows officers to obtain arrest and search warrants electronically rather than seeking out a judge. And another new policy allows officers to fill up their police cars at any gas station rather than relying on city pumps.
Harrison said those tweaks, along with an aggressive hiring push, should continue to decrease the times between a 911 call and an officer pulling up to the scene.
“You will see an improvement in response times,” Harrison said, “as we add more officers and build the physical human capacity to respond, as well as adding more technology initiatives. We are making a very conscious and determined effort.”