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Having a hard time getting a response to non-emergency calls in Chicago? Here’s a big reason why.

Police officers who take those calls — while on limited duty or awaiting disciplinary findings — met the goal for answering phones just 38% of the time, records show.

The 311 operations building at 2111 W. Lexington St., where the Chicago Police Department’s Alternate Response Section is located.
The 311 operations building at 2111 W. Lexington St., where the Chicago Police Department’s Alternate Response Section is located.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

One reason that Chicagoans might be having problems getting a response to their non-emergency calls to the city is that officers in the Chicago Police Department’s non-emergency call center have been having trouble meeting their bosses’ performance expectations.

That’s according to records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times that show the officers’ “average service level” — the percentage of calls answered within the police department’s “goal response time” — was just 38% during a sample period of April 19 to April 30.

Asked whether top police officials are satisfied with that performance, a department spokesman said the unit is “continuously being evaluated to identify areas of improvement.”

The Alternate Response Section is staffed by cops who’ve been stripped of their police powers and others not medically cleared for full duty. They work in a building on the Near West Side.

Last month, the Sun-Times reported that callers to the city’s non-emergency 311 lines have experienced long delays at times this year getting through to someone there. One woman, Kiama Doyle, said she made at least 20 calls and four hours or more on the phone trying to file a non-emergency report that her Nissan Rogue was stolen in March.

Doyle said she made most of her calls to 311. It’s unclear from her phone records whether her delays occurred at the 311 call center — which is staffed by civilian city employees — or after she was transferred to the police-run Alternate Response Section.

People can call 311 to request city service like garbage pickup and complain about things like airport noise and rat infestation.

People who call to fill out a non-emergency police report get transferred to the Alternate Response Section — either by the 311 operators or by pressing “7” on their phones to be automatically transferred there. Or they can bypass that process by calling the Alternate Response Section directly at (312) 746-6000.

Citizens also can fill out non-emergency police reports online or have officers in the field or at police stations take their reports.

Doyle said her mother tried to file a report at a South Side police station but was told she couldn’t because she didn’t own the vehicle. Doyle said she filed her report on the phone because she now lives in Arizona.

According to the records the city released for the last 12 days of April:

  • The average wait time for an officer to pick up the phone was two minutes and 46 seconds. The biggest delay for an officer to pick up the phone was more than 29 minutes — on April 20.
  • More than 12,000 calls were made to the Alternate Response Section in that period, including those transferred from the 311 center and those made directly to the unit.
  • About 9,300 calls were picked up by cops answering the phones. About 2,760 people hung up rather than wait after being put on hold.
  • The 311 call-takers transferred about 1,500 calls to officers. Callers pressed “7” to bypass a live 311 operator more than 5,760 times.

The majority of the calls to the Alternate Response Section don’t result in a police report being taken because many are for information that doesn’t require one, according to police officials.

Theft was the No. 1 type of report filed by the unit. Slightly more theft reports — 1,394 — were filed by Alternate Response Section officers than by cops in the city’s 22 districts, who took 1,382 theft reports in that period.

Alternate Response Section officers also took slightly more vehicle theft reports than district cops: 383 to 335.

Officers in the Alternate Response Section don’t take reports about traffic accidents.

The entrance to the building where 311 operations and the Alternate Response Section are headquartered at 2111 W. Lexington.
The entrance to the building where 311 operations and the Alternate Response Section are headquartered at 2111 W. Lexington.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

Launched more than 20 years ago, the 311 center — and the Alternate Response Section — were supposed to take pressure off the 911 operators who handle life-and-death calls.

In 2013, the police department under then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel decided to send alternate response a greater share of citizen’s calls for police service. Cops were no longer supposed to respond in person to 911 calls about vehicle thefts, garage burglaries or crimes in which the victim is “safe, secure and not in need of medical attention” and the suspect is “not on the scene and not expected to return immediately,” according to the 2013 policy.

Those calls would be transferred from 911 to the Alternate Response Section — a change the police said would free 44 officers a day to respond to the most serious crimes.

From April 19 to April 30, Alternate Response Section officers filled out 19% of the police department’s non-emergency reports. District cops in the field and in police stations handled the other 81%.

Asked whether they’d like to see the Alternate Response Section officers taking a bigger share of non-emergency reports, police officials answered only, “ARS was designed to maximize the ability of the department to readily respond to serious criminal acts and emergency situations and focus on crime and disorder problems on the beat level.”

More than 230 officers were assigned to the unit in late April and May, including 95 officers on limited duty.

Some officers have remained in the Alternate Response Section for years, getting their full police pay.

Officer Thomas Sherry leaves the Cook County criminal courts building at 26th Street and California Avenue after a 2006 court appearance.
Officer Thomas Sherry leaves the Cook County criminal courts building at 26th Street and California Avenue after a 2006 court appearance.
Brian Jackson / Sun-Times file

One officer, Thomas Sherry, was on desk duty in the unit for more than a decade until the department moved to fire him and suspended him without pay Feb. 10. He was accused of doing illegal searches and filing false reports in 2004, court records show.

Between 2002 and 2006, Sherry had worked for the now-disbanded Special Operations Section, a citywide unit that made drug and gun arrests. Some officers in the unit were convicted in a federal corruption investigation, but criminal charges against Sherry were dropped in 2009.

Former police Cmdr. Jacob Alderden, who ran the Central District downtown until he was demoted to captain in early June, is now in charge of the Alternate Response Section. He got the department’s highest honor in 2018 for his actions following a hospital shooting. Police officials won’t say why he was demoted, saying that’s a “personnel matter.”

Kiama Doyle’s odyssey to report her SUV stolen.