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Got an emergency in New Orleans? Expect a 31-minute wait for help

“It’s worse than it’s been since we’ve had the ability to track it,” said crime analyst Jeff Asher. “And it’s much worse.”

NEW ORLEANS — Mark Mascar lay huddled with his dog, Lotus, under a van parked near his home in Mid-City, pleading on his cell phone for police.

“I’m in danger! They’re chasing me with a gun!” he told a 911 dispatcher shortly before 9 a.m. on May 30. He’d been waiting nine minutes before he implored, “Is someone coming or not?”

Someone was, the dispatcher assured him, though she couldn’t say how much longer it might take. Waits for police to respond to emergency calls like Mascar’s have skyrocketed this year as the New Orleans Police Department sheds officers, 911 call data show. 

Mascar, like many emergency callers, didn’t think waiting was much of an option. The British transplant had just pulled out his phone to record a pickup truck with two men he’d seen breaking into a vehicle, when the truck turned around. A window lowered as it came back at him, and the men flashed handguns, he said. 

Mascar, 54, ran around a corner and dragged Lotus, a black mouth cur, under the van as the pickup circled. He waited 12 minutes before sprinting in terror to his doctor’s house nearby.

“They’re not drawing guns just to say, ‘Hello. Good morning. How are you?’” he said. “In that time, anything could have happened.”

Police didn’t arrive in the area for 14 minutes, 911 records show, and they ignored the address where he told them he was hiding. It was only after he felt safe enough to walk back home, he said, that he came upon two responding police units. 

Gary Scheets, a spokesperson for NOPD, said the first officer arrived on the scene within a minute, although that contradicts the public records and the 911 operator who told Mascar police were still on their way 9 minutes into his call. Scheets said the first unit that arrived waited for backup before taking action “due to the nature of the call.” He said they went looking for the perpetrators rather than making contact with Mascar to make sure it was safe, only contacting him after he came out of the house where he had taken refuge.

That was about 20 minutes after his 911 call from under the van, according to 911 records. Yet by today’s grim standards, it was far better than average for New Orleans police.

30 Minute wait for emergency response; almost an hour in N.O. East

Frightened callers to 911 in New Orleans wait more than half an hour on average for police in an emergency, and nearly an hour in sprawling New Orleans East, the data show.

The 31-minute average time to respond to high-priority 911 calls is also 12 minutes more than what it was in 2015, when an investigation by The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV sparked changes that would help shave several minutes from what were then alarming delays.

Those gains are now reversed. And today, police take nearly twice as long to respond to emergency calls as they took in 2019, a new  analysis of 911 call records by the news organizations shows. 

“It’s worse than it’s been since we’ve had the ability to track it,” said crime analyst Jeff Asher. “And it’s much worse.”

By multiple measures, response falls short

There are multiple ways to quantify how long it takes police to arrive on a scene, though by any measure response times are headed in the wrong direction.

The NOPD prefers to use a different measurement, the median rather than the average, to claim the delay isn’t as bad as it seems. The median shows that NOPD gets to half of all emergency calls in less than 10 minutes and 30 seconds. But even that is 3 minutes longer than it was in 2019.

Plus, using the median doesn’t capture the fact that very long wait times have become more common. Cops now take more than 20 minutes to respond to more than a quarter of all emergencies. And they’re taking more than an hour on 10% of calls, up from 3 percent just three years ago. 

Yet another measure was developed by NOPD in 2015, when it set a goal of responding to 90% of all emergencies within 7 minutes and 90% of non-emergencies within 14 minutes. 

At the time, only 27% of each category met the benchmarks. But it’s gotten worse: the percentage of emergency calls that hit the goal slip by 0.4 percentage points, while only about 19% of non-emergency calls now come in under the department’s goal.

How long a caller will wait can vary dramatically by neighborhood. In the department’s 7th District - which covers New Orleans East - it now takes more than 53 minutes on average for a patrol car to arrive to an emergency and nearly 5 and a half hours for less serious incidents. Half of all emergency calls take more than 17 minutes; for non-emergencies, 50% of people wait more than 2 and a half hours.

The 7th District has traditionally had the most lagging response times, something NOPD has blamed on its expansive geography. But the average is now more than twice as long as it was in 2015.

By contrast, the heavily patrolled French Quarter and Central Business District had response times that were a fraction of the East. Officers got to emergencies within 17 minutes on average, and half of all such calls had a response time of less than 7 and a half minutes. 

Meanwhile, Uptown residents can expect to see an officer in about 80 minutes on average - just a half hour longer than someone in a potentially life-or-death situation in the East could wait.

Increasingly, slow response times don’t just mean a caller is left waiting. It may mean a crime ends up completely unreported, as callers are unable to wait for an officer to write up a report.

In 2015, about 22% of calls got marked down as “gone on arrival” or “unfounded,” indicating the victims or witnesses had left before police arrived. That number was falling as response times improved, but shot back up during the pandemic. Now, more than 29% of all police calls get one of those designations.

Lack of officers isn't helping

The jarring rise in response times this year comes with little immediate relief in sight. 

Another 116 officers have left the force this year as of mid-August, continuing an exodus that began last year, while the city has hired just 24 recruits to replace them. At about 950 officers, the NOPD is at its thinnest in decades, and about 200 officers below where it stood in 2015.

When response times spiked back then, NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison redeployed desk officers and pushed online crime reporting and other steps to free officers to respond to emergencies.

Those steps also came as the department was hitting its stride on a national officer recruiting campaign. The hiring push meant more young patrol cops answering 911 calls. 

While never fully solving the problem, those changes appeared to have real impact. Response times declined in the following years, in some cases dramatically. By 2019, the average emergency call was 20% faster than it would have been four years earlier and non-emergency responses had been cut by more than 40%.

But Asher and others note that many of the moves the department made in 2015 are no longer possible for lack of officers, and average emergency response times have risen sharply over the last three years.

Scheets, the NOPD spokesman, said the department was able to stabilize rising response times in June by changing to two 12-hour shifts, rather than three 8-hour shifts. The backlog of calls tends to grow during shift changes.

Officers who are completing their field training Monday are being assigned to the 5th, 6th and 7th Districts, where more patrol staff is needed, Scheets said.

He also said Superintendent Shaun Ferguson is looking to add more staff that will use alternate ways of reporting lower-level calls, without police needing to respond to the scene.

The backlog of 911 calls and the NOPD’s response to it has caught the attention of U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan, who is overseeing reforms to the NOPD. Morgan this month ordered four fresh audits of the force, including reviews of response times and downgraded calls for service.

A push to add a big civilian component to answer lower-priority calls and free up officers has gained traction on the City Council and support from Morgan. 

Thomas Dee, a Stanford University professor who has studied emergency police responses and alternatives, said it wouldn’t surprise him if New Orleans’ ballooning delays contribute to higher violent crime.

“These sorts of things can feed into a kind of negative cycle,” he said. “The police responses get longer, with fewer people to address really serious behavior as that recognition grows.”

Can citizens help?

Dee pointed to a push in several cities to transfer a swath of 911 calls to mental health teams. Such programs have won support, he said, from “Back the Blue” and “Defund the Police” voices alike.

Police in Austin, Texas last year began offering a mental-health option to 911 callers. New York City opened a 911 response division for mental health calls in Harlem. Washington, D.C. began a similar program last year. 

In Denver, officials went further in 2020, launching a pilot program that left police officers out of some 911 responses altogether. A different team would respond to reports of public intoxication or welfare checks, for instance.

Evidence from the Denver pilot shows a reduction in low-level crimes, without an increase in more serious ones, according to a study that Dee co-authored.

“The motivation has been police voices saying, ‘We’re having to deal with an increasing number of these types of people in mental health distress: welfare checks, people who are suicidal,” he said.

The NOPD has launched a pilot program in which trained civilians help police respond to sex crimes in its 3rd District, which covers Lakeview, Gentilly, and Mid-City. The department also recently hired a private firm to send civilians to minor traffic accidents across all eight of its districts, a move aimed at freeing up more commissioned officers. City Council President Helena Moreno, who has pressed Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration to beef up civilian responses to 911 calls, lamented the swell in response times for the most serious calls.

“That’s, ‘Hey, somebody has been shot.’ That’s an intruder in my house,” she said. “That’s when you need a police officer in seconds to minutes, not 40 to 50 minutes.”

Moreno said NOPD should look to Baltimore, where Harrison and other police officials announced a plan this year to hire civilians as investigators on some property crimes, cold cases, background checks and even internal affairs. 

She and Asher say it’s not defeatist to point out the problems if there are solutions available. But the shortage of police is definitely affecting morale, inside and outside the department. 

Perhaps the most troubling part of Mascar’s harrowing morning hiding from gunmen came when he approached a patrolman afterward, he said.

“He just said, ‘Unfortunately, we can’t protect and serve you. We just haven’t got the numbers. Have you got protection for your wife and your family yourself?’”

RELATED: NOPD's average response time soars to 2-and-a-half hours as officers leave force

RELATED: Call Waiting: NOPD dramatically curbs 'unfounded' designations

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