Understanding Response Times for Police

Recently a resident of the city brought a complaint to the City Council meeting to tell them that he found the response by our police to a particular call to have been too slow.  We had heard from his family previously and so we are investigating the matter in hopes that we can resolve his concerns.images

But in listening to him I realized that many people may have his same perception that response times for police have value in determining the effectiveness of the police.  While response times have long been used to evaluate fire department responses, they are no longer used by policing experts and scholars to  determine police effectiveness.  Police response time really only measures how fast we can drive.  It doesn’t impact the outcome of the cases in the vast majority of instances.  For example, we know that building alarms are false 98% of the time.  Should we then drive at high rates of speed that endanger ourselves and the public when the only information we have is that an alarm is going off?  We know that the alarm companies often call the owners before they call us so there can be a long delay between the time the alarm is actually triggered and when we receive the report.  We know that when we have thunderstorms, alarms go off all over town due to the electrical impacts of the storm–should we continue a high priority response?  The most critical factor in whether police can impact an in progress call is how quickly it is reported meaning from the time of the incident itself, not discovery but occurrence.   Many policing experts would say that using police response times as a measure of police effectiveness is much more of a political  manuever than a useful law enforcement measurement tool.

There isn’t a standard for police response times.  Departments define emergency calls differently–some kinds of calls have a higher priority than others and it varies department by department based often on the resources of the agency and the volume of calls among other factors.  We are low in staffing right now, we are hiring but people are retiring faster than we are able to get them replaced right now.  So we have to deal with our limited resources when we prioritize calls.  We sometimes have to queue calls that we don’t want to queue and when we do that the sergeant is notified so that he or she can prioritize the calls in “pending” when they feel it necessary.  We prioritize life safety as first, meaning that we put reported injury vehicles crashes way up on our lights and sirens list.  We are now responding lights and sirens with fire units to medical calls when someone is having a heart attack or something that we can impact by getting on scene quickly.  So I’m not saying that we don’t respond quickly to some kinds of things–we are just highly selective.  It is largely in the judgement of the dispatcher and the supervisor.  The dispatcher asks lots of questions because they are trying to determine the emergency status of any call and make sure the right resources are sent.  (More on that in an upcoming blog)

I realize that quick response by the police is a citizen satisfaction issue.  When you call us you want us there as quickly as possible.  But if we start emphasizing response time as a primary measure of performance for our officers, other departments have found that traffic crashes will increase because the officers are driving more quickly to calls–and that is not an outcome that we want.

We do look at other measures of department performance –one of the most important ones is case clearance.  This is a measure of case outcomes-what we do when a case is reported to us.  The standards are set by the FBI who defines how cases can be closed, the primary ones being arrest and exceptional clearance.  Arrest means that we’ve identified a perpetrator and brought them into custody.  Exceptional clearance means that we have identified the perpetrator but can’t arrest them because they are dead, the victim refused to cooperate, things like that.  We clear at a high rate-of course we always are trying to improve that.  We clear at 58% which is pretty good when the statewide average is around 33% pretty consistently.  You can find more information on other communities on the Michigan State Police website under the ‘statistics” tab.

There are a lot of factors that go into police response times.  Here is a Wall Street Journal article “Giving No Time to Misleading Police Stats” on the subject from August 2013 that gives a good view of the complexity of the subject.  One of the experts quoted in the article, Leonard Matarese, is from the ICMA who did a study of our department in 2010 – 2011 and one of the factors they looked at was our response time and at that time they found us satisfactory in that regard.

We do understand your concerns and we do want to meet your expectations.   When we get on scene we want to do a thorough and complete job so that we catch the bad guy.  Every member of the department is committed to a safe community and we’ll continue doing our best to achieve that goal.

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I'm the Chief of Police for the Auburn Hills Police Department.