Chicago’s 911 dispatch times vary widely around city

Written By By DAN MIHALOPOULOS AND FRANK MAIN Staff Reporters Posted: 03/30/2014, 02:27am
Array Two people shot on the 7400 block of S. Champlain in Chicago. | Brian Jackson~Chicago Sun-Times ORG XMIT: CST1304141643348049

If you need a cop in an emergency, it routinely takes the city’s 911 center more than three times longer to dispatch a police car in some parts of the South Side than it does downtown and in much of the North Side, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis has found.

It takes the longest to dispatch officers in three South Side police districts: Grand Crossing, South Chicago and Calumet, according to a review of data for 911 calls involving the most serious crimes. Grand Crossing and South Chicago are in the city’s southeast corner. The Calumet district includes Roseland.

The Jefferson Park and Albany Park districts on the Northwest Side posted the quickest average dispatch times in 2011 and 2012, and again were among the five fastest in the city last year.

The findings mirror a 2010 Sun-Times review that found high-crime districts on the South Side and West Side were most likely to face a situation in which police weren’t available to respond to 911 calls.

Chicago Police Department officials say the data don’t necessarily reflect how long it takes for officers to get to the scene of a crime. “Dispatch time does not equal police response time,” police spokesman Adam Collins said.

Collins said that’s because officers will often hear a radio call for a shooting or another reported “crime in progress” and head to the scene before being dispatched. In some cases, Collins said, those officers even wrap up their work by the time they are officially dispatched by the 911 center. But he could not say how often that’s the case.

Collins noted that many categories of crime last year dropped to levels the city hadn’t seen since the 1960s — with South Side districts seeing the most significant drops in murders.

Still, the disparities in dispatch times have become the newest point of contention in the long-running court battle to force Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration to assign more officers to largely black and Hispanic neighborhoods. In a lawsuit filed in 2011, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and neighborhood activists from Austin on the West Side accuse City Hall of discrimination for not having enough officers in higher-crime areas. The city persuaded a judge to throw out the case, but a state appeals court reinstated it in November.

Harvey Grossman, the ACLU’s legal director, said the data obtained by the newspaper “clearly establishes that the delays and inequities continue to the present.”

“Nothing has happened under Emanuel and [police Supt. Garry] McCarthy that has changed the imbalance of services in the city,” Grossman said.

He wants the Chicago Police Department to redeploy officers after doing a public “workload-based assessment” of where more cops are needed.

As things stand, Grossman said, “Politics trumps law enforcement.”

“If you can’t hire more officers because of fiscal constraints, then fine,” he said. “But you need to distribute the cops you have more fairly.”

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), whose ward is in the Calumet district, said he wants “a lot more” reassignment of officers from low-crime districts to higher-crime areas.

“If you look at crime rates throughout the city as a whole, you can afford to move officers from slower districts without compromising safety,” said Beale. “If you put officers where they’re most needed, you will see a balance in these [dispatch] numbers.”

Since taking office as mayor in 2011, Emanuel has vowed to increase the number of beat officers and to focus new hires on higher-crime areas such as Englewood. As of Jan. 6, the department had 6,412 rank-and-file beat officers assigned to its 22 districts, city records show. There were 6,638 in October 2012 and 6,746 at the start of 2011, according to the documents.

Beyond those officers assigned to districts, McCarthy has put hundreds more officers on patrol on the South Side and the West Side since last year in an effort dubbed “Operation Impact,” Collins said. The department also has more officers there in special units such as gang and gun teams, Collins said.

Wesley Skogan, a Northwestern University expert on crime and policing, said assigning more beat cops to high-crime districts might not be the most cost-effective way to reduce dispatch times.

“If you need more people in the field standing by to answer calls, maybe the solution is to shift more of the nonessential calls to ‘alternative response’ as the least expensive solution,” Skogan said.

Unlike the 911 center, the alternative response section of the city’s 311 center doesn’t immediately dispatch officers to the scene. Instead, it takes nonemergency reports. Police follow up later.

“Historically, Chicago has sent too many officers to too many calls,” Skogan said.

Police officials agree and say they have been referring more calls to alternative response for the past two years.

The average dispatch time citywide last year was 4 minutes and 29 seconds. That was down from 5 minutes and 10 seconds in 2012, when crime rates spiked. It was higher, though, than 2011’s average dispatch time of 4 minutes and 21 seconds.

The slowest average dispatch rates last year were recorded in five districts entirely south of Roosevelt Road.

The gaps were widest in the summer. In August 2013, for example, the average dispatch time in the Grand Crossing district was 12 minutes and 32 seconds. That was more than four times slower than downtown and much of the North Side.

For all of 2013, it took an average of 8 minutes and 49 seconds to dispatch officers in response to 911 calls reporting a major crime in the Grand Crossing district — the city’s highest average response time last year.

The Sun-Times obtained dispatch data covering the period since the start of 2011. The data from the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communication reflect how long it took 911 operators to dispatch a car to the scene of a reported “Priority 1” or “Priority 2” crime, the highest priorities. Unlike many other cities, Chicago doesn’t keep figures on response times.

Department rules require police to tell dispatchers when they arrive at the scene of a serious crime, but law-enforcement sources said officers rarely follow that order, making it impossible to record response times.

A source familiar with the city’s 911 operations said longer dispatch times in high-crime areas are the result of a shortage of beat cars. Dispatchers sometimes put out a top-priority call on a citywide frequency when they can’t find an available car, the source said.

“They throw a pitch, but there’s nobody to catch,” the source said.

Eventually, dispatchers must assign the call to a car. Often, they “stack” a call on top of calls a car already has, the source said.

“The truth is the cars are not rolling right away in the busy districts,” the source said. “They may have other jobs they are trying to finish first. When you have a backlog, the public doesn’t always see the police. You don’t catch people in the act. That’s the problem.”

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