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Do police response times matter?

While research shows little correlation between faster arrival on scene and arrest rates, response time does play a big role in public satisfaction

While getting to a call in a timely manner is a great community relations tool, does faster arrival on scene affect crime rates, arrest rates and saves lives?

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 PoliceOne Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit Do response times matter? | The missing link in LE | Hollywood cops, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.

Complaints of poor police response time may be taking a back seat to concerns about other aspects of police conduct but getting to that 911 call in a timely manner can be the best community relations tool of all. The question, however, is whether faster arrival on scene affects crime rates, arrest rates and saves lives.

A critical component of response time is emergency vehicle operation, which claimed the lives of a dozen police officers in 2018 who crashed responding to calls – twice the number of officers killed during police pursuits, four times the number murdered by assault with a vehicle and a third of all vehicle-related officer fatalities.

What the research shows

A study recently published by Stanford University researcher Daniel S. Bennett found that, “Complicating any analysis using response times, however, is the fact that different police agencies face very different circumstances, both in the severity of the calls they respond to and in the geographic realities of the areas they serve.”

Bennett found an inverse relationship between response time for emergency calls and non-emergency calls in a multi-city study. This doesn’t sound shocking, given that more severe calls are typically given priority by dispatchers who then must place more recent but less urgent calls at the end of the call queue.

Conventional wisdom is that response time is important, but most studies cast doubt on whether decreasing the time between the notification and arrival of police has little effect on arrest or clearance rates. Bennett, however, quotes a recent study declaring that a 10% increase in response time can have a 5% reduction in solving the crime. That study claims that a new hire for the purpose of faster response times can yield a 170% return of payroll costs in the savings that result from lower crime.

The seminal study on the effectiveness of preventive patrol conducted in the 1970s in Kansas City, Missouri, has been cited as evidence that random patrol patterns have no significant effect on crime rates. An often-overlooked aspect of the study is the finding that response time has a significant effect on measures of public satisfaction with their police departments.

Incidentally, Bennett’s survey showed no significant difference in response time based on the known race or neighborhood of the caller in urgent calls. But, since lags in response time, even on non-emergency calls, have a negative effect on public perception of their police agencies, department leaders should be aware of that reality. As any officer knows who has waited for a back-up officer, ambulance, or fire department’s arrival, wait time is frustrating no matter what the clock says.

Factors complicating response time

The public rarely understands how the dispatching system works. Every communications officer can testify to the anger that callers experience when dispatch is asking screening questions to assess the call and an officer is not at the caller’s door immediately. The assessment and coding of an incoming call, directing the call to the appropriate agency or agencies, assignment of the call to the specific units and that unit’s arrival at the scene (even assuming the responder has an accurate location), all add seconds to the clock.

Police leaders and supervisors may find their strategic deployment of patrol resources has less impact on response time than factors out of their control.

Takeaways for police managers

  • Public satisfaction is based on perceptions and expectations. Increased staffing, building new stations, establishing substations, or adjusting patrol areas can be disruptive and expensive. It may be as productive, from a community relations view, to invest in adjusting public expectations through education than from actually improving patrol response times. Predictive policing crime analysis can be a good to wise resource deployment.
  • Assure your public that no differences in response times are due to race or economic status and have the facts to prove it. If patterns reveal a disparity, the situation should be remedied.
  • When response time becomes highly valued, officers can feel pressured to rush through citizen contacts or avoid officer-initiated activity, both of which negatively affect police efficiency and public confidence.
  • Use caution in measuring response time. Many dispatch systems can’t measure all of the factors involved in response time. For example, if 100% of personnel are on duty for a presidential visit, response times might be slower due to the special activity and fixed posts. Thus, in a study of response time relative to staffing that includes unusual events the averages can be skewed.
  • Response time to major crimes should be examined by separating reports of crimes in progress from crimes discovered. Estimates are that only 25% of serious crimes reported are those actively believed to be occurring at the time of the call to the police. The number of “in-progress” calls that are subsequently determined to be unfounded should be calculated in response times, since their priority at the time of dispatch isn’t changed by the findings after response.
  • Driving fast is dangerous. Improving response time by higher speeds of responding officers is a prospect too deadly to encourage.
  • Investing in non-sworn personnel to handle low-priority calls can be a cost-effective way to respond effectively to citizens requests for service.
Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.