- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Metropolitan Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey yesterday said D.C. residents should not be concerned by city police officers’ slower response times to life-threatening emergencies.

“You’re going to have times when it’s up; you’re going to have times when it’s down,” Chief Ramsey said about his department’s average response times to Priority 1 calls.

The Washington Times reported yesterday that city police officers last year took more than a minute longer to respond to calls for the highest-priority calls such as armed robberies, assaults and shootings in progress than they did in 2002.

According to the Metropolitan Police Department’s fiscal 2005 budget performance report, the average response time for the highest-priority calls was 8 minutes, 25 seconds in fiscal 2003. It was 7 minutes, 19 seconds in fiscal 2002 and 7 minutes, 47 seconds in fiscal 2001.

The department’s response times place it among the slowest in the metropolitan area and among a sampling of major cities of similar size, The Times reported.

In October, the first month of fiscal 2004, police officers added another minute to their response time, reaching the scene of a Priority 1 emergency in 9 minutes, 34 seconds on average, according to new department statistics. However, during the first seven months of fiscal 2004, the department managed to lower its average response time to 8 minutes, 5 seconds — still among the slowest in the region.

“If the trend continues, we will improve upon the times that were previously reported,” said Capt. James Crane of the communications division.

Capt. Crane said he expects to see the average response time for the year to drop to as low as 7 minutes.

D.C. police measure response times from when officers receive a call from a dispatcher to when they arrive at the scene of an emergency. Capt. Crane said the communications center’s goal is for operators to take 911 calls in one minute and for dispatchers to send officers within one minute.

In 2003, Prince George’s County Police had an average response time of 5 minutes, 46 seconds, and Fairfax County had an average time of 6 minutes, 6 seconds. Both suburbs have fewer police officers and more residents and include a much larger area than the District.

Chief Ramsey said comparisons are unfair because the emergency-call volume was lower in those areas.

The chief’s responses did not convince John Aravosis, co-chairman of the police watchdog group Safe Streets D.C.

“It’s a culture of excuses. You always hear about police problems, and you always hear about excuses,” Mr. Aravosis said.

Mr. Aravosis said he was disturbed by performance measures that call for police officers to reduce response times by 2 percent each year, meaning police could meet their goal for response times in fiscal 2004 while still being slower than they were in 2002.

He said Chief Ramsey is using his “past failures to justify his current successes.”

“I’m not surprised,” Mr. Aravosis said. “The idea that they’re going to get credit because they did so lousy last year is crazy. We can’t play this game.”

Chief Ramsey said the only fair comparisons can be made between the District’s performance and that of police departments in other large cities.

Boston, which is similar in size and population to the District, had an average response time last year of 8 minutes. Authorities there measured the time using the higher “call-to-scene” standard from when a 911 operator picks up the phone to the time an officer arrives for help.

“Boston doesn’t have the crime we have,” Chief Ramsey said. “No comparison.”

Boston also doesn’t have as many officers. With 589,141 residents in its 48 square miles, Boston has a police force of 2,164.

The District has an authorized strength of 3,800 officers to patrol 61 square miles occupied by 572,000 residents — the highest per capita police force in the nation among cities with 500,000 residents or more.

There is no national standard for police-response times, and Capt. Crane said D.C. police have no fixed goal for performance, instead giving officers the guideline to respond “safely and as soon as possible.”

He said the start time for measuring responses — when a dispatcher notifies an officer — is computer-generated. But the end time is recorded when officers call over the radio to say they have responded to the scene.

Chief Ramsey said that requirement may skew the numbers upward.

“If [an officer is] pulling up on a robbery in progress, they’re not going to pull out the radio and say, ‘I’m here,’” he said.

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