Calling 911, but where are police?

Analysis finds lag in Atlanta's response to emergencies

On McDaniel Street, a fight broke out between two groups of teenage girls.

Off Cleveland Avenue, a mother couldn’t find her 6-year-old after he wandered away from a bus stop.

And at the same moment the afternoon of May 5, at Phoenix Park near Turner Field, Jackie Gordon watched a middle-aged man in a yellow jumpsuit chasing children on the playground while exposing himself.

Gordon grabbed her cellphone and dialed the familiar number for help: 911. The police, she was told, were on their way.

They weren’t.

Instead, the 911 operator sent an electronic message to a dispatcher for the Atlanta Police Department, who held the call — for 56 minutes and five seconds — before sending an officer to Phoenix Park. The dispatcher had no choice: The police department had no one available to promptly respond to a report of a man demanding sex from children.

With too much crime and too few officers on the streets, Atlanta police dispatchers routinely hold such emergency calls even longer than the time in which officers are supposed to reach the scene, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows.

More than 24,000 times from January through July, or in 18 percent of incidents, according to the newspaper’s analysis of communications records, police dispatchers were unable to assign officers to calls relayed by the city’s 911 until after what the department defines as the acceptable total response time had elapsed.

The dispatch delays contribute heavily to what public safety experts describe as abysmal response times to emergency calls in Atlanta: Officers arrived on the scene of the highest-priority calls within five minutes just 9 percent of the time. Slightly more than half the calls in the two categories with the next-highest priorities received timely responses.

The delays occur across the city, throughout the day, week after week, on calls both extraordinary and banal. Fights, automobile accidents, reports of prowlers, even sexual assaults often have to wait: one hour, two hours, sometimes longer.

By the time police arrive at many crime scenes, suspects — and sometimes even victims — have long since left.

The delays are a manifestation of problems that have roiled the police department and dominated debate in this year’s city elections. The city furloughed officers half a day each week for six months, until the City Council raised taxes and ended the practice. Officers, many of whom complain they never received raises promised by Mayor Shirley Franklin, have resigned at a rate nearly twice the national average, leaving the department with about 1,600 officers. The department’s Holy Grail — a 2,000-officer force — is no more a reality than it was a decade ago.

And Chief Richard Pennington has deployed so many officers to special duties, such as drug and gang units, that just 40 percent are assigned to routine patrol.

In an interview last week, Pennington acknowledged that many residents feel frustrated with his department. But he said keeping enough officers on duty and fully staffing the 911 center has been a challenge. Last spring, 35 of the call center’s 134 positions were vacant; recent hires will bring the center to full strength in a few weeks. Deciding which calls deserve the most prompt attention, he said, requires tough choices.

“If a person’s shot, we’re going right away,” he said. “But if your flower pot is stolen off your front porch, we’re not going right away. The police will get there. But because of the backlog and because of not having available resources on the street, it’s going to take a while.”

A reconstruction of a single day — May 5, a warm, clear Tuesday — underscores the pervasiveness of delayed dispatching. Atlanta’s 911 system answered 1,282 calls that day. No callers reported major, high-profile crimes. Yet, with about 250 patrol units in service across three shifts, dispatchers struggled to send officers to crime scenes within acceptable response times.

One-fourth of the time, they failed.

Following protocol

Even in the early hours of May 5, the police had more calls for help than officers on duty.

At 1:07 a.m., the security guard at a downtown apartment building called 911, reporting that a woman had been attacked by her boyfriend. The woman was sitting with the guard in the lobby, but her boyfriend, a city corrections officer, also had come downstairs, trying to keep her from calling the police.

The 911 operator assigned a high priority to the call, one that required an officer to be on the scene within 10 minutes.

No national standards exist for police response times. But Atlanta, like most other departments, has established protocols that require the quickest responses to the most serious calls. Following those protocols in virtually every instance is critical, said Rick Jones, operations issues director for the National Emergency Number Association, which studies 911 systems.

“In almost every case of a mishandled 911 call,” he said, “it happens because the agency has chosen not to follow some emergency call protocol.”

The security guard’s call on May 5 went to the city’s new communications center, which had opened the day before on the fifth floor of the old Macy’s building downtown on Peachtree Street.

There, operators take information from about 1.2 million callers each year, try to determine the seriousness of each situation, and then transmit details to dispatchers for the police and fire departments in the same building or to an ambulance dispatcher at Grady Memorial Hospital.

The 911 operator who spoke to the security guard took six minutes to process his call — about three times longer than normal. At 1:13 a.m., the call showed up in a computer queue monitored by a police dispatcher.

Ideally, the dispatcher would have sent an officer right away, and the officer would have had four minutes to meet the 10-minute response standard.

But the dispatcher held the call for 18 minutes, until 1:31 a.m. The officer she dispatched took another 25 minutes to get to the scene, arriving at 1:56, 49 minutes after the guard called 911.

Carmella Jones, 29, a student at Georgia State University, told police her boyfriend broke her cellphone during an argument, dragged her to the bed, covered her nose and mouth and choked her. After scratching him, she said, she ran to the elevator and went to the guard in the lobby.

The police, Jones said, seemed to regard her call as merely a domestic quarrel.

“They kind of pacified it,” she said. “They tried to make me believe they did me a favor. It was the worst thing I’ve experienced by far.”

‘The city is broke’

The Northside Plaza Apartments are familiar to police. This year alone, the complex on Markham Street, near the Georgia Dome, has been the scene of 11 reported crimes: three burglaries, one attempted burglary, an assault, two armed robberies, a vehicle theft and three vehicle break-ins. One of those occurred May 4.

A few hours later, at 2:31 p.m. May 5, a resident called 911 to report that two suspicious-looking men with backpacks were hanging around outside. The 911 operator told the police dispatcher to get an officer to the complex within 20 minutes.

But the dispatcher waited much longer — one hour and 51 minutes — to send an officer. When the officer arrived around 4:30 p.m., he told the dispatcher he didn’t see anything suspicious. So he left.

Across town, in front of Lenox Mall in Buckhead, Jason McCracken waited.

He had called 911 at 1:45 p.m. after another motorist ran into his Ford sport-utility vehicle. McCracken, 30, and the other driver decided to stay at the site of the accident so they’d have a police report for their insurance claims. In the meantime, they exchanged telephone numbers and insurance information. They kept waiting.

The other man, McCracken said, wasn’t carrying his driver’s license and became increasingly nervous.

“We waited so long,” McCracken said, “that the guy who ran into me left the damn scene.”

McCracken called 911 again at 2:20 p.m., this time to report that his accident had turned into a hit-and-run. “They kept telling me an officer was en route,” McCracken said, and a police dispatcher broadcast a “lookout” for the other driver.

But it was almost an hour later, at 3:12, when the dispatcher finally assigned the call. An officer took another 42 minutes to arrive. By then, McCracken had been waiting — missing work, stuck beside a busy stretch of Peachtree Road — two hours and nine minutes.

“I was [mad],” he said. But the officer gave no apologies. “She just said the city is broke and they’re short-handed and she got there when she could.”

‘Someone’s coming’

At Phoenix Park, Jackie Gordon kept a watch on the playground flasher. He was “standing around cussing me out, cussing out the kids,” Gordon said. “Just real nasty.”

She called 911 at least twice more.

“They kept saying someone’s coming,” Gordon said. “But the police were busy.”

The police were receiving other urgent calls almost simultaneously: the girls fighting on McDaniel, the missing boy near Cleveland Avenue, illegal drug activity on Boulevard, an auto accident on Metropolitan Parkway. A little after 4 p.m., about 15 minutes after Gordon first called 911, a police field supervisor radioed a dispatcher to ask how many calls were on queue.

The dispatcher said she had “a couple” of urgent calls, along with several lower-priority incidents.

“But they’ve been holding since, like, 2:43,” she said, exasperated. “I don’t have any units.”

Gordon’s call was one of 18 received between 3:50 and 4 p.m. Dispatchers held those calls an average of 37 minutes.

Almost an hour had passed when an officer got to Phoenix Park. Gordon pointed out the flasher, and the officer arrested him.

‘Total crapshoot’

Early the evening of May 5, John Michalik noticed three men in a vacant lot across from his house, apparently dealing drugs. It’s not an unusual sight, he said; the overgrown lot on Gartrell Street, once intended to become a condominium development in the semi-gentrified Sweet Auburn neighborhood near downtown, seems to attract “constant drug dealing.”

Michalik noted the men’s physical attributes and clothing and, for what he estimated to be the 60th time since he moved into the neighborhood in May 2008, called 911. He described the men to the operator and hoped police officers would come soon. When they didn’t, he was hardly surprised.

Calling for police assistance in his neighborhood, Michalik said, is “a total crapshoot.”

Michalik was renovating his house one afternoon in June 2008 when “I came face to face with a career criminal in my bedroom,” he said. The man carried some of Michalik’s tools and claimed to have a gun. Regardless, Michalik, 33, who delivers furniture for a high-end Midtown retailer, chased the man before calling 911 to report a home invasion burglary in progress.

No officer arrived for 45 minutes.

“To me,” Michalik said, “that’s ridiculous.”

The response to his May 5 call took even longer. Michalik called 911 at 6:35 p.m. The operator forwarded the information to a police dispatcher at 6:38. At 8:54, a police supervisor checked on why the call hadn’t been dispatched. At 9:11, a dispatcher notified an officer to head to the vacant lot on Gartrell.

By then, Michalik said, the drug dealers had moved on.

Michalik said he and his roommates and their neighbors are frustrated. For protection, he installed security cameras. And he bought a gun.

His description of his neighborhood: “It’s the Wild West.”

‘We went to bed’

Just before 9 p.m., a familiar alarm startled Bessie Brooks.

It came from her blue 2006 Dodge minivan, parked just outside her apartment on Maple Street, in the Vine City neighborhood.

When Brooks got to her car, a security guard for her apartment complex told her he had seen a young man in a white shirt run from her van before scaling a fence that separates the complex from Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

Brooks, 56, dialed 911 for the first time in her life and passed on the description of the man, hoping police might catch him.

“It wasn’t even dark out yet,” she said.

The 911 operator assigned the call a low priority; the police were supposed to arrive within 50 minutes. Brooks returned to her apartment and waited.

Hours passed. No officer came.

“We went to bed,” Brooks said. “We were trying to listen. You know eventually they’re going to come.”

Eventually. At 11:32 p.m., two hours and 32 minutes after Brooks reported the incident, a police dispatcher sent an officer to take a report. He got to Brooks’ apartment almost an hour later, at 12:26 a.m.

Brooks got out of bed and gave the officer enough information to file a report. He spent perhaps 15 minutes with her, she said, before she went back to bed.

In his report, the officer wrote: “Checking the area, I did not locate ... subjects fitting the description Ms. Brooks gave.”

The report failed to mention that this search took place past midnight, three and a half hours after Brooks had called for help.

By the last hours of May 5, the police were having trouble responding quickly to any call.

At 9:06 p.m., just after Bessie Brooks reported the attempted theft of her minivan, a motorist called 911 about a traffic accident at Ralph David Abernathy and Joseph E. Lowery boulevards. Seconds later, an officer was dispatched — but he went to the wrong location. So the accident call stayed on queue, waiting for another available officer.

At 10:55 p.m., nearly two hours later, another officer finally was free to take the call.

The dispatcher didn’t know, apparently, that one of the motorists had called 911 again half an hour earlier to say she had tired of waiting and the police shouldn’t bother to come.

The 911 operator made a note on her computer: The drivers, she wrote, “will handle among themselves.”

Database specialist John G. Perry contributed to this article.

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