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A letter to the American public: What you need to know about call priority

A common complaint officers hear from citizens is, ‘What took you so long?’

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The following is excerpted from my new book, “Expert Witness: A Civilian’s Guide to Effective Crime Reporting,” which introduces civilians to what happens behind the scenes when police answer calls for service.

This is probably one of the most common grievances that members of the community share with officers when they arrive on a scene: “What took you so long to get here?”

Trust me, officers want to make it to your scene quickly to help you in any way they can if they are able. The problem is that many police departments across the nation are understaffed, and yet there is no shortage of calls.

What the community doesn’t know, and what police departments have done a bad job at explaining, is the concept of call priority. Call priority is how call-takers prioritize calls for service based on the information they receive from you, the 911 caller. The information you give determines how police officers can respond to calls and whether or not they will get there promptly.

Every police department uses some form of the same system, with a basic breakdown that looks something like this:

Priority 0: This is the highest level call that a department can receive. These calls involve the imminent loss of life or property, where the suspects are either actively committing the offense or all parties are still on-scene. Think fights, stabbings, robberies, shootings and crashes where someone is likely to get seriously injured. During these calls, officers are allowed to “run code,” which means they get to use lights and sirens and disregard traffic laws. All of this equates to the fact that they get to you extremely quickly. With calls of this nature, officers can even be pulled from lower-priority calls to respond.

Priority 1: This the second-highest priority a department can receive, also known as an urgent call. These calls are similar to Priority 0 calls and often involve many of the same offenses. The difference here is that the offense just occurred (versus still actively happening), and the suspects may be in the immediate area (versus on scene). Officers are still able to run code to these calls and will be looking to either saturate the area to find the suspects or arrive on-scene quickly to administer aide. Officers can also be pulled from lower-priority calls to respond to Priority 1 incidents.

Priority 2: This is the third priority level, which covers most non-emergency situations. These are incidents where there is no immediate threat to human life or safety and all involved parties are still on scene. Officers responding to these calls often are not allowed to run code and must obey the traffic laws of the area. Additionally, officers can be reassigned from Priority 2 calls to higher ones, like Priority 1 or Priority 0.

Priority 3: These are the lowest-priority calls that a department will respond to, and they will have the longest wait times, sometimes in excess of five hours. Priority 3 calls are those where life or property is not at risk and an immediate police response will not likely prevent further injury or loss of property and will likely not adversely impact an investigation. These calls can include welfare checks, noise calls, financial disputes and lost property.

Understanding that police response is in direct correlation to what priority a call is assigned, you can begin to see why, in some cases, it takes officers a while to arrive. Understanding when to call 911 and how important the information you give to the call-taker is can have a direct impact on police response to your emergency. It is important to understand that if your call doesn’t meet the above criteria for a high-priority call, then it may be a little while before an officer can make it out to you. This isn’t because they don’t want to take your call or that it isn’t important; it is far more likely that there is, unfortunately, a heavy call load with higher-priority calls than yours. As I stated before, officers headed to a lower-priority call can and will be pulled from that call and reassigned to a new higher-priority one, which will have a noticeable effect on response times.

Xavier Wells is the founder of Cadet, Rookie, Cop, LLC, created to fill training gaps for new officers. He is an active Texas peace officer, disabled veteran and author of four books: “The Rookie Handbook,” “Applicant to Police Cadet,” “Graduating with Honors” and “Expert Witness.” He holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and a master’s degree in public administration from Liberty University. Currently, Xavier works patrol and serves as an adjunct defensive tactics instructor for his department.