October 2015: Special report: Slower, 'unacceptable' New Orleans police response times have become norm; see average wait times by area

When a woman was choked nearly unconscious in Gentilly last year, police reached the scene 39 hours later.

It took 40 minutes for an officer to show up after a man was beaten so viciously in the Marigny this month that he remains paralyzed. When the cop finally arrived, the witnesses were gone, and so was the victim.

A man broke Sheetrock and fence boards during the course of a domestic dispute with his mother in the 7th Ward last year, and his alarmed landlord reported it. An officer showed up a full 23 hours later and deemed the call “miscellaneous,” as if no crime had taken place.

Such laggard responses to emergency police calls in New Orleans have fast become the norm, according to an analysis of more than five years of police response data by The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV.

New Orleans police are taking more than three times longer to respond to a typical call than they did in 2010 as the department faces a crushing backlog that leaves callers waiting hours or even days for an officer to arrive. And it’s not just run-of-the-mill theft and petty burglary reports stuck in the queue.

The New Orleans Police Department has taken pains to prioritize violent crimes, but a depleted force means cops are struggling to respond quickly to domestic disturbances, shootings and even murders.

Urgent “Code 2” calls now take police nearly 20 minutes on average to reach the scene. That’s double the nine-minute, 47-second clip logged in 2010, according to the news organizations’ analysis of every call for service taken by the NOPD since the start of 2010 — some 2.7 million records.

For less dire “Code 1” situations, which can include armed robberies and burglaries where the victim is no longer in danger, cops arrive nearly two hours and 11 minutes later on average, more than four times longer than 2010.

As the clock ticks, the chances grow that a bad situation will escalate. Meanwhile, precious evidence can be lost, and victims and witnesses may decide to just give up, resulting in crimes that are dismissed by police who arrive and find nothing to investigate. Victims say longer response times have eroded their trust in the police and make them less likely to report crimes in the future.

Police officers now mark up nearly 1 in 4 calls as either “gone on arrival” or “unfounded,” about double the percentage in 2010. None of those calls appears in police statistics as reported crimes.

A string of frightening incidents in recent months has shone a spotlight on the NOPD’s struggles in getting officers to crime scenes quickly. Among them was an armed robbery of patrons at the well-known Uptown restaurant Patois in which 2nd District police — among the most prompt of the city’s eight districts — took 17 minutes to show up.

But the problem is far deeper than one high-profile holdup. It extends to every part of the city, snowballing as the number of officers on the street has dwindled. The NOPD’s headcount has fallen from 1,525 officers in 2010, when Mayor Mitch Landrieu came into office, to 1,154 officers as of Tuesday, including 62 police recruits who have yet to hit the pavement.

Overall, officers took just over 24 minutes to respond to the average call in 2010. This year, the wait time has spiraled to one hour and 19 minutes, according to the data. The analysis included all response times of more than 10 seconds, the rule of thumb NOPD has used to informally determine which calls are self-initiated by an officer.

Among the other findings of The New Orleans Advocate/WWL-TV analysis:

The time it takes for a cop to get to a scene has gone up, even as the number of calls for service has fallen by 10 percent, from 497,548 in 2010 to 448,355 in 2014.

Response times for serious, violent crimes also have shot up. Aggravated batteries were handled in an average of just over 17 minutes in 2010, but by this year, that time had almost quadrupled to one hour and six minutes.

Although police are still quick on the scene when shots are fired, the average response time for homicides has doubled, from five minutes and 47 seconds in 2010 to 11 minutes and 50 seconds thus far this year.

How quickly police arrive depends in large part on where you live. At the extremes, callers from the 7th District could expect to wait an average of two hours and 27 minutes for a unit to arrive — or four hours and 19 minutes if the call was not seen as urgent. In the 4th District, which covers Algiers, the wait times are far shorter. An officer typically will be at the door in about 46 minutes, and within 11/2 hours for even the lowest-priority calls.

Police Superintendent Michael Harrison says he knows the department must do better across the city.

“It is totally unacceptable for anyone to have to wait that long for a police response,” Harrison said in response to the news organizations’ findings.

“On emergency response, we still get to citizens’ calls fairly quickly, and we feel pretty good about that. Nonemergency calls — it takes a while,” said Harrison. “We lost 400 police officers.”

City and police officials say they are taking action to speed up response times. Along with a push to bolster the NOPD’s sworn headcount, Harrison has pressed for changes that allow officers to ignore some false home alarms and residents to report minor thefts online.

Some of those efforts are in their infancy, and none has yet seemed to reverse the trend.

Landrieu said in an interview that budget woes forced him to live with a smaller NOPD, which in turn has meant it takes longer for officers to get to crime scenes.

“The choices that we had back then were between bad and worse, so it was an awful situation to be put in,” Landrieu said. “We have started to build back one of the best police departments in the country, and we will continue to do everything necessary to make sure that we get the manpower necessary.”

Two days, countless calls

While average response times are eye-popping, the stories of residents who have called desperately for police help and waited in vain can be shocking.

Gentilly resident Chenika LeBlanc said it took two days and what felt like “hundreds” of 911 calls to get a 3rd District officer to her Marigny Street house after she was assaulted and throttled there last year.

LeBlanc said she made her first call when she saw a teenaged relative, who had been living with her grandmother, sitting outside and threatening her. No police came, she said, and the situation “wound up getting out of hand. Escalated more than I wanted it to.”

As LeBlanc waited for an officer, the girl kicked in the front door and then choked LeBlanc to the point where she almost passed out, she said. Then the girl proceeded to tear the house apart, she said. Eventually, a private security guard working at a church across the street restrained the girl.

“The only thing (the dispatcher) asked me is like, ‘Does she have a weapon?’ ” LeBlanc recalled. “I just kept calling for my safety, but I couldn’t get any help.”

The girl finally left with her grandmother. LeBlanc kept calling. As hours and then days passed, her boyfriend fixed her broken front-door frame, erasing a major piece of evidence. She could not simply leave her home undefended, she reasoned.

NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble said LeBlanc’s call initially came in as a medical dispatch about 2 p.m. on June 1, 2014. Police were not notified that she wanted their assistance until 1 p.m. the next day. Because the girl was long gone, the situation was treated as a nonpriority call. Finally, on the morning of June 3, an officer was dispatched. He arrived at 5:28 a.m.

When the officer showed up, said LeBlanc, he seemed irritated to find a long-cold crime scene. Third District Officer Roy Caballero dryly acknowledged LeBlanc’s frustration in his police report.

The door was fixed and LeBlanc did not have any visible bruises, he said, but “the officer would like to note that the incident did occur two days prior to the report being taken even though Mrs. LeBlanc has called and waited for a report to be taken since the day the event occurred.”

Caballero had a judge sign a warrant for the girl’s arrest. LeBlanc, meanwhile, was left feeling like a second-class citizen in her own city.

“They just focus on one area, it seems like. I have a friend, she stays on St. Charles, and she calls the police and it just seems like her response was immediate,” LeBlanc said. “They just have their picks and chooses on who they want to get to first and how they want to respond.”

Location, location

How quickly an officer will arrive on the scene is largely dictated by how many other incidents cops are scrambling to address at the time. When a 911 call comes in to the Orleans Parish Communications District, dispatchers enter it into a system that categorizes and prioritizes it, decisions that can be tweaked by NOPD supervisors.

After the Patois robbery, police were quick to note that 10 officers were tied up at the time responding to a string of separate armed robberies that happened elsewhere Uptown. Unless a call is high-priority — such as a crime in progress — it is placed on a list with other calls waiting on a response. The length of time a call will sit in that queue has grown dramatically over the years. The Patois call, for instance, was not dispatched until six minutes after it was received; once that happened, it took another 11 minutes for police to actually drive to the restaurant.

If there’s nothing else waiting or if a crime is serious enough to warrant being pushed to the head of the line, the police might arrive almost as quickly as they would have in 2010.

While average times are much higher, half of all calls this year got a response in less than 16 minutes and 25 seconds. But even by that measure — which statisticians call the median and which is preferred by NOPD officials — the lack of officers is showing an effect. In 2010, the median response time was eight minutes and 34 seconds.

The data show that a large number of calls get stuck in a queue, and the response times in those cases can get out of hand. Officers took more than 26 minutes to arrive on a scene about 40 percent of the time this year, twice as frequently as in 2010.

One in five people calling 911 won’t see a cop for more than 11/2 hours .

“The longer a crime scene sits, the more opportunity for that crime scene to be disturbed or for evidence to be spoiled,” said Donovan Livaccari, an attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police.

The chief doesn’t dispute that.

“Yes, opportunities to solve crimes are being lost,” Harrison said.

The Advocate/WWL-TV analysis suggests that the NOPD will have to dramatically accelerate its hiring process just to restore response times to those five years ago. Manpower reports show that on some nights, only four officers patrol vast areas such as the 7th District, which has seen more murders this year than Boston.

National comparisons are difficult, because some cities are more spread out than others, and every city has its own way of categorizing calls as high priority. Police in Austin, Texas, Philadelphia and San Diego told The Wall Street Journal in 2013 that they generally respond to urgent calls in under six minutes. But those cities categorize fewer than 5 percent of calls as high priority, as opposed to the roughly 31 percent of calls in New Orleans that are Code 2.

When they start their shifts, cops say they often are overwhelmed by a docket of dozens of calls left for them to check out by the outgoing watch.

“It’s frankly demoralizing to constantly, every time you come into work, there’s 40 calls holding in the backlog,” said Livaccari.

The NOPD’s inability to respond quickly means officers often are dealing with frustrated, even hostile residents. Michael Glasser, president of the Police Association of New Orleans, said the rising times can undercut the fundamental relationship between officers and the public.

“What is the No. 1 priority?” Glasser asked. “When somebody calls, ‘Help!’ we go. I believe that’s the first thing we do. If we can’t do that, what can we do?”

In many cases, when cops finally arrive, they greet an empty scene. Café owner Suzanne Sievers-Bartlett said she waited for police for half an hour after a teen struck her on the head while she was jogging in the Marigny on Sept. 19. The worst part of her experience, said Sievers-Bartlett, was when the teen and his friends again biked past her as she waited for help. They seemed to be taunting her.

Sievers-Bartlett said she finally gave up, demoralized, and has not attempted to file a report since.

“The kids had no fear,” said Sievers-Bartlett. “I just wanted to go home, so I went home. I was angry but not surprised.”

Mobile users click here for video.


Mike Perlstein and Katie Moore, of WWL-TV, contributed to this report.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson. Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge. Follow David Hammer on Twitter, @davidhammerWWL.

More Stories