Nearly half the time, Chicago cops don’t record time of arrival at emergency scenes

Inspector General Deborah Witzburg set out to determine if 911 calls from Black and Hispanic neighborhoods get slower response time. She couldn’t — because much of the data does not exist.

SHARE Nearly half the time, Chicago cops don’t record time of arrival at emergency scenes
Chicago police officers near Schurz High School, 3601 N. Milwaukee Ave., in August 2022 after four teens were wounded in a drive-by shooting.

Chicago police officers near Schurz High School, 3601 N. Milwaukee Ave., in August 2022 after four teens were wounded in a drive-by shooting. A new audit by Chicago’s inspector general looked at how long it takes police to respond to emergency calls.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

For decades, perception has been rampant that Chicago police respond more slowly to 911 calls in predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

Inspector General Deborah Witzburg set out to determine the veracity of those claims — but couldn’t reach a conclusion.

“More than half of the time, the police do not record a time stamp when they arrive at the scene of an emergency call. That means we don’t know how long it takes them to get there,” Witzburg told the Sun-Times Wednesday, as her office released an audit of several years’ worth of 911 calls.

“This is at the core of the police department’s public safety function. When people call 911 and they need help in an emergency, how long it takes the police to show up — that’s what drives how safe people feel.”

Every day, Chicago’s emergency center fields 3,500 calls for service. That’s 1.3 million calls a year.

During the course of the audit, the Witzburg’s office spoke to residents and organizers of community groups who “raised alarms about slow response times and police failing to show up” in response to 911 calls.

Some organizers went so far as to report that Chicagoans have “lost faith in calling for help and often seek to resolve incidents without the police,” the report states.

In her failed attempt to determine whether there is, in fact, a geographic disparity in response times, the inspector general’s office examined all 911 calls received by the city from 2017 through 2021.

Time stamps are required at eight points, in this order:

• When the dispatcher receives the call.

• When “an event is created.”

• When the dispatch is ordered.

• When the dispatch is acknowledged.

• When the ambulance, fire apparatus or police car is “en route.”

• When it arrives “on scene.”

• When the emergency is “cleared.”

• And, finally, when the event is recorded as “closed.”

Witzburg found reporting issues pervaded that entire process. But by far the most troubling finding was that time stamps are recorded by police officers when they arrive on the scene of an emergency only 49% of the time.

The more serious the emergency, the greater the likelihood of a time stamp being recorded, she said.

Priority zero calls, when police officers and other emergency responders are in danger, had time stamps 71% of the time. In contrast, Level 2 calls, which require “rapid dispatch,” had arrival times recorded 52% of the time, the audit shows.

“That tells us that the problem here is not that the data is missing because police officers are busy dealing with an emergency. The higher the priority call, the more likely the data is to be present. That turns the conventional wisdom on its head a bit,” Witzburg said.

“We need better training for members of the police department on the importance of recording the data. We need … every CPD vehicle equipped with the devices that would allow members to record these time stamps. We need a better system of capturing the data.”

Some of those changes are already in the works.

The city has purchased — though not installed — a new computer-aided dispatch system. Employees have not been trained on that CAD system, which will provide an “automated solution” for recording on-scene arrival times. Other required time stamps would still have to be entered manually.

CPD also needs a “monitoring system” to ensure officers follow the existing mandate to record time stamps at every step — and face discipline if they don’t.

Inconsistent reporting prevents the city from analyzing the factors contributing to slow emergency response times, pinpointing areas for improvement and any disparities that may exist between neighborhoods. It also makes it more difficult for CPD to determine whether police resources are distributed fairly to high-crime neighborhoods, which need more officers.

“We need to know where the problems lie. Where it’s taking too long to respond to calls — whether that’s because of equity-driven disparities, whether that’s because of staffing shortages. Whatever the case may be, we need to know where the problems lie and we cannot improve what we cannot study. We don’t have enough data here to know how long it takes for the police to respond to emergencies.”

CPD responded to Witzburg’s findings and recommendations with a promise to review its reporting policy and enhance training. But, police officials said, a shortage of “manpower and bandwidth” could make it difficult for CPD to work with together with the Office of Emergency Management and Communications to audit emergency response data.

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