Chicago police data shows response to 911 calls can be painfully slow newstrendslive

The Sunday sun was an hour or so from rising over the lake as the Jeffery Pub was closing on Aug. 14, sending patrons out the door and on their way.

It had already been a rowdy end to the night. Just after 4:30 a.m., somebody had called police to report an assault. During the wait for officers to arrive, an altercation spilled out onto the street. And then somebody made a chilling threat.

“I got something for you,” a man allegedly said, adding an obscenity, before he turned and walked a half-block north on Jeffery Boulevard, got into a car and pulled into traffic.

The man, according to court records, then floored the gas pedal and rammed it into the crowd. Four people were struck, including three who died.

The crash occurred at 4:58 a.m., according to court records. That was 27 minutes after the first 911 call about the earlier assault, but no officers had shown up by then.

An officer wasn’t dispatched to the bar until 5:20 a.m. and didn’t arrive until 5:35 a.m., city data shows. That was well after firefighters had arrived to start tending to the wounded — and 64 minutes after the first 911 call.

That lag highlights a staggering reality for Chicago residents: If you dial 911, it may be a while before police show up — even if the situation is so serious that department policy calls for an “immediate” response.

While police do respond relatively quickly to many calls, a Tribune analysis of 2022 city data found that tens of thousands of serious calls lingered in the 911 system for longer than it typically takes to get a pizza delivered.

Chicago has long struggled with times when there are too many calls for assistance and not enough police to respond, but the latest findings illustrate how significant the problem has become and how the burden isn’t shared evenly.

The Tribune’s analysis, based on data the city released last year as required by a legal settlement, also shows the waits for police can be particularly long in several South Side districts where the majority of residents are Black.

In some districts, including District 3 where the Jeffery Pub is located, nearly half the immediate-response calls made from January through November 2022 sat for 10 minutes before operators could dispatch an officer to start heading toward them.

Citywide, the wait for an officer to be dispatched topped an hour for more than 21,000 calls, according to the city’s data. That was roughly 1 of every 24 high-priority calls.

And those delays are only part of the problem. The time it takes to dispatch an officer doesn’t include the time it takes for a 911 operator to ready the call to be dispatched, nor the time it takes once the call is dispatched for the officer to arrive at the scene.

Analyzing the total response time is difficult because for many calls in the city’s data set no arrival time is logged. Even with those limitations, the Tribune identified thousands of additional calls in which officers didn’t report arriving to a scene within an hour of the 911 call being placed.

All told, the wait for police exceeded an hour for more than 29,000 high-priority calls in 2022, the Tribune found, and the true number is likely higher.

Flowers sit outside the Jeffery Pub in Chicago's South Shore neighborhood in August after a driver killed three people by ramming his car into a crowd.

Those results are just for the “immediate” dispatch calls, which range from robberies in progress to someone spotted with a gun. Chicago police have two other lower-priority categories for calls — “rapid” dispatch and “routine” dispatch — where the data show that wait times are even more likely to exceed an hour.

A Chicago Police Department spokesperson did not respond to detailed questions about the Tribune’s findings, including possible reasons for delayed responses and why some dispatch times for high-priority calls exceeded 60 minutes. Instead, the department issued a brief statement saying it was “committed to timely response to calls for service within every neighborhood citywide.”

“Patrol resources are frequently analyzed and adjusted to ensure calls for service are responded to by officers in a timely manner,” the statement said.

That vague answer isn’t good enough for the head of the newly seated Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability, Anthony Driver Jr.

“I think they should prove it,” Driver said. “If that is the case, they should have no problem publicly explaining what these numbers mean and defending the data they are putting on their website.”

The commission, created by city ordinance and formed this summer, was intended to give community leaders more input into who runs the police department and how it operates. The commission quickly became the latest entity to question what Chicago police are doing to better position officers across the city, particularly in an era when the number of active officers has shrunk.

Driver said the Tribune’s findings reinforce the dramatically different realities Chicagoans experience depending on where they live.

“It doesn’t instill confidence … that when I call the police, as a Black man on the South Side, that I will get the same response as some of our North Side counterparts,” he said.

Last year, the city quietly began posting charts on police response times, based on the same data it was forced to release as part of the legal settlement reached in fall 2021.

Inexplicably, the charts focused only on the final portion of a response: the time it takes, once officers are dispatched to a scene, for the first officer to arrive. In essence, the charts measure the travel time for officers, excluding the time it took for a 911 operator to pick up the phone, to discern the nature of the call and to hand the call off to a dispatcher, as well as the time that elapsed before the dispatcher directed an officer to the scene.

The charts also come with a big caveat: The data they’re based on doesn’t include all high-priority calls. In a third of those calls, the department didn’t track when officers arrived at the scene, so those calls were excluded from the department’s calculations. The department also warned that some of the arrival times logged may be inaccurate.

The city has said officers racing to high-priority calls may be too distracted in life-or-death situations to log arrival times properly. But the Tribune found record keeping was even spottier for lower-priority calls, such as parking violations, which suggests that adrenaline rushes aren’t always to blame.

Even given these limitations, the data on officers’ travel times isn’t flattering to the department.

In November, officers’ median travel time to the scene was 9.5 minutes for the highest-priority calls. In New York City, by contrast, the equivalent figure was less than 4 minutes, according to numbers posted online for a similar period. (In cases where an event results in multiple 911 calls, the earliest dispatch and arrival times are used to measure responses.)

Within Chicago, the data shows travel times varied dramatically among the city’s 22 police districts, ranging from a median of 5.8 minutes to nearly 12 minutes. (A median means half the calls took more time and half took less.)

But perhaps the most troubling revelations come from data that’s missing from the posted charts: the time it takes to send out an officer after the 911 operator readies a call for dispatch.

In essence, that’s the middle leg of the emergency response, the one before the travel leg that the city charted online. This information was buried in massive data sets the city posted at the bottom of the website, below the charts. Unlike the travel leg, times are listed for nearly every call, and reporters analyzed those numbers for all calls received from January through November 2022.

There will always be some lag when dispatching police, but it should be minimal. In New York City, for example, for its highest-priority calls during a similar period, that city reported a median time of 90 seconds between the time a 911 operator transferred the call to a dispatcher and the time when the first officer started heading toward the scene.

In Chicago, the Tribune found the same measurement for high-priority calls was more than double New York City’s, with a median time of 3.1 minutes. And in some places, the lag can be far greater, particularly in some South Side districts.

District 3 — where the Jeffery Pub is located — covers much of South Shore up to Jackson Park, and west to the Dan Ryan Expressway. The median time to dispatch a Priority 1 call was 9.3 minutes, with nearly half of the high-priority calls taking longer than 10 minutes to dispatch.

Those were the worst results in the city. The best were in District 20, which stretches from much of Edgewater west to the North Shore Channel. There, the median time to dispatch a Priority 1 call was 1.6 minutes, and 1 in 11 calls took longer than 10 minutes to dispatch. That’s still a frustrating roll of the dice for callers, but one with much better odds than in parts of the South Side.

An even more stark divide can be seen in the worst of the worst cases: Priority 1 calls that sat for at least an hour before they were dispatched.

In District 3 on the South Side, of the nearly 30,000 Priority 1 calls made from January through November, more than 4,200 waited over an hour before police were sent. Just 21 of District 20′s more than 11,000 Priority 1 calls sat for more than an hour before they were dispatched.

That’s roughly 1 in 7 calls for District 3, vs. 1 in about 540 in the North Side district.

The raw data analyzed by the Tribune is publicly available only because residents of the Austin neighborhood, with the ACLU of Illinois, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city a decade ago, demanding to know whether police response times in the city were slower in Black communities.

Citing several studies, the lawsuit alleged that an “unfair deployment scheme results in longer delays and even denials of responses to critical 911 calls in minority neighborhoods as compared to white neighborhoods,” according to a statement from the ACLU.

The lawsuit also noted that the neighborhoods that appeared to suffer long response times were also the ones experiencing high rates of violence.

“As a result, African American districts, which tended to have more violent crime, suffered because CPD assigned them fewer police resources than white districts,” the 2011 complaint reads.

The resulting settlement in that lawsuit required the department to post the data, which went live last year. In that settlement, the city acknowledged that “people in predominantly minority neighborhoods should not wait materially longer for responses to 911 calls than people in predominantly white neighborhoods.”

The data the city posted doesn’t include information about the demographic makeup of police districts, but the Tribune used data from the U.S. Census to show that majority Black and Latino police districts tended to have longer waits than majority white districts for calls to be dispatched. The two districts with the fastest median dispatch times were majority white, and the three with the slowest median times were majority Black.

In the decade since the lawsuit was filed, tension about police service and response in Chicago’s Black community has only gotten worse.

The murder of Laquan McDonald by an on-duty Chicago police officer in 2014, as well as the national reckoning on policing that followed the slaying of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020, helped reveal a lack of trust in law enforcement and fueled a drive for sweeping police reforms.

Surveys conducted in late 2019 and early 2020 by the independent monitor who is overseeing court-mandated reforms of the Chicago Police Department provide a stark look at how racially divided the city is when it comes to policing. While nearly 80% of white residents surveyed said police make them feel safer, less than half of Black residents who took part felt the same. Just a third of young Black men surveyed felt that way.

The 2019 federal consent decree that is governing efforts to overhaul the Chicago police requires the department to use data to decide how to assign and deploy officers.

In answering those questions, a city-sanctioned study by the University of Chicago Crime Lab was considered a start. After analyzing GPS data for officers, along with decades of crime data, the lab reached initial conclusions that found deployment levels dropped during weekend overnight periods when shootings were going up.

Instead of embracing the findings, Superintendent David Brown scrapped the study, telling the community commission in October that the study was “missing” some elements, including accounting for the way nonpatrol officers can surge into hot spots. Brown announced the department was launching its own study, which police officials have declined to describe to the Tribune.

One place familiar with waiting for police is Jeffery Pub. It sits just north of 71st Street on a block of Jeffery Boulevard where, by mid-August, police had been called more than 90 times for high-priority incidents in 2022, for an average of about three a week.

It took police more than an hour to arrive at the Jeffery Pub after someone called 911 to report an assault last August.

Most of the calls were to report disturbances, batteries or assaults occurring at the time the 911 calls were made, but they also included calls about people armed with knives or guns. Of those 90-plus calls, eight took more than an hour to dispatch, according to the data.

That included 76 minutes until officers were sent to a February call about a criminal sexual assault that had just occurred and 152 minutes until officers were sent to a January call about a battery in progress.

And so it was not unprecedented when police failed to arrive quickly after the assault call was made at 4:31 a.m. on Aug. 14. In the next 27 minutes, authorities said, the trouble inside the bar spilled out into the street, where one patron threatened the group before plowing his car into the crowd at 47 mph, killing three.

A Chicago Fire Department crew made it to the scene within 9 minutes of a new 911 call, according to a department spokesperson. By 5:27 a.m., five more fire department units and two supervisors had arrived.

It took another eight minutes for the first police unit to arrive. That was 64 minutes after the original assault call, a delay that was reported at the time by CWB Chicago and has come up at regular meetings held by the district’s police commander with residents.

The Chicago police spokesperson did not respond to a Tribune question about whether the attack could have been prevented if officers had arrived sooner. Tavis Dunbar, 35, is jailed awaiting trial on murder charges, in what prosecutors called “an execution by vehicle of three men.” He has pleaded not guilty.

The Tribune’s citywide analysis and the lawsuit by the ACLU raise questions about systemic problems with Chicago police response times and what can be done to ensure better overall deployment of officers, particularly in a city where the number of active officers is down about 1,500 from more than 13,000 active officers four years ago.

Those monitoring the consent decree also say the city has struggled to ensure there are enough supervisors to oversee how rank and file officers are used. The latest independent monitor’s report, released in mid-December, noted officers and sergeants continued to express “a great deal of frustration” about “inconsistent supervision and staffing shortages.”

At the center of the deployment debate are thorny issues of how many more police officers are needed, where and how they should be deployed, and what kinds of 911 calls should be handled in other ways, such as by social workers or mental health clinicians.

And that doesn’t count even broader questions about how to limit the societal ills that fuel the steady stream of 911 calls, or how best to help officers struggling with increasing mental health issues from the stress of a job that’s forced some to work 12-hour shifts and have days off canceled.

Near the Jeffery Pub on a recent afternoon, a corner bustled with people waiting for a bus to head to work and to go Christmas shopping. Mothers pushed strollers, and a World Cup soccer match played in a beauty salon as women got their hair done. Every now and again, a Metra train whizzed by. Police SUVs raced by too, with lights flashing and sirens blaring.

A handful of people the Tribune spoke to said they were not surprised to hear of the long police response times in the area.

Shaila Foreside, shown in December at 71st Street and Jeffery Boulevard, said Chicago police did not show up after she called 911 to report a threat.

Shaila Foreside, 41, who was waiting for a bus, said she called 911 recently for help after a male visitor threatened her and refused to leave her apartment. No one ever showed up, she said, which led her to visit the 3rd District station on Cottage Grove Avenue and ask why.

She said she was told calls needed to be prioritized. “I said, ‘The man threatened my life.’”

Conversations with others made clear that, no matter what is causing the delays, the problem feels very personal to them, not to mention steeped in Chicago’s long history of racial segregation.

“Because it’s Black,” Willie Scott, 60, who is Black and grew up in South Shore, said matter-of-factly when asked by a white reporter what he made of the dispatch delays for his neighborhood.

“If you call, they’d be there in 10 minutes,” Scott said. “(If) I call, I’d be dead with a bullet stuck in me for about an hour lying on the floor bleeding out.”

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