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Police response to 911s slowing

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Metropolitan Police officers took more than a minute longer to respond to emergency calls last year than they did in 2002, according to recent police department statistics.

The statistics, contained in the department's fiscal 2005 budget performance report, show that the average response time for the highest-priority calls -- Priority 1 -- was 8 minutes, 25 seconds in fiscal 2003, up from 7 minutes, 19 seconds in fiscal 2002 and 7 minutes, 47 seconds in fiscal 2001.

Priority 1 calls are for life-threatening situations, such as armed robberies, assaults and shootings in progress.

Although there is no national standard for police-response times to priority calls, the Metropolitan Police Department's average response time puts it among the slowest in the metropolitan region and among a sampling of major cities, according to statistics that The Washington Times has collected from other jurisdictions.

And the District has more officers per capita than any other city with a population of at least 500,000. The city has 629 officers per 100,000 residents and an authorized strength of 3,800 officers for its 572,000 citizens.

D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which oversees the police department, said the slower response times were disturbing.

"A full minute change is something to be concerned about. Seconds matter when you're talking about 911 response," she said. "It's also a strange statistic, given that crime is going down and the number of officers was supposed to be going up during the same period of time."

D.C. police officials, including Chief Charles H. Ramsey, were not available to comment on the statistics, but Mrs. Patterson said better administration could help solve the problem.

"The solution would be better deployment and particularly good supervision on the ground, at the sergeant level, to make sure officers are doing what they're supposed to be doing when they're out in the field," she said.

The District measures responses to Priority 1 calls based on the time when a dispatcher notifies a police officer about an emergency to the time the officer arrives at the scene of the emergency. The District does not include the time it takes for the 911 operators to collect information from the callers.

In Prince George's County, police said it takes 5 minutes, 46 seconds on average to respond to emergency calls based on the same standard.

Other surrounding jurisdictions, notably Montgomery and Fairfax counties, measure responses using the higher standard of how long it takes from the time the 911 operator answers the call for help to the time the officer arrives on the scene.

The response time in Montgomery County was 5 minutes, 20 seconds in the first half of 2003, despite the county's employing a third fewer officers than the District to patrol an area eight times larger and with a population more than 50 percent larger.

The response time in Fairfax County, which is roughly comparable to Montgomery County in size and population, was 6 minutes, 6 seconds during 2003.

In Boston, which has a size and population similar to that of the District but has a police force of 2,164 officers, in 2003 responded within an average of 8 minutes to Priority 1 calls from the time police dispatchers answered the call for help.

San Francisco, which also measures response times like Boston, took 10 minutes to respond to priority calls last year despite a population of 776,733 and 2,449 police officers.

The Metropolitan Police Department's goal on the performance measure each year is to reduce response times by 2 percent. With a response time of 7 minutes, 19 seconds in 2002, the goal was to reduce it to 7 minutes, 10 seconds in 2003.

Although that goal was not met, the department will only have to cut this year's time by 2 percent, to 8 minutes, 15 seconds, to achieve its performance goal.

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