As Police Response Times Worsen across the US, Families Must Modify Their Emergency Plans

Marc Debrody

Start off by assuming that police won’t be there for 20 minutes, not five. Now take the following actions.

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Many of our clients have assumed for years that if they place a 9-1-1 call in a crisis, local police will respond immediately — or at least “within a few minutes.” This assumption is especially true among families who live in major cities with large police departments in residences that aren’t particularly remote or otherwise hard to reach.

Fair assumption, right? Nope. Not anymore.

Police response times are getting worse across the US.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, response times for law enforcement agencies have worsened. Take Philadelphia, for example. In 2021, average response times for its police officers increased by more than 20% — from 18 minutes to nearly 22. That’s certainly better, though than in Kansas City, Missouri. When Mark Miller, a local resident suffered a series of burglaries, his calls to the police resulted in this response: “You have now until 4 hours for a police officer to respond.” Miller was shocked. “Then, [the officer] said, ‘In all honesty, [our county] doesn’t care about break-ins.’” This vignette would not have surprised Columbus resident Teaira Gamble. When another driver crashed into her car at 12:58 p.m. on a summer day, she and other witnesses placed eight 911 calls over the next 3.5 hours before police showed up.

What factors are driving this trend?

There are several. The most common include budget cuts particularly for overtime, rising crime levels, higher numbers of officers calling in sick and chronic personnel shortages at a time when many police officers are choosing early retirement or leaving the profession entirely. At the same time, potential new officer recruits are thinking twice about joining the profession given the criticisms being leveled at police across the nation.

COVID is also to blame. For example, LAPD officers in large numbers are refusing to get vaccinated, sparking controversy. In the first week of January 2022, more than 500 LAPD officers and other police department personnel were out sick with COVID-19 (2,600+ have sought a vaccine exemption). Omicron variants have kept officers and LA Fire Department personnel out sick for weeks at a time.

Families need to be prepared for delayed police responses

We have been helping our clients think through what this new response environment means for their safety and security — and that of their extended families, such as adult children, or even college-age kids living on their own. In fact, many have elected to engage private security personnel for full-time coverage — whether these individuals are employees or contract guards. Because so many households are now affected, we felt it would be helpful to share our guidance publicly in a blog that might help others outside our immediate “circle of care.”

Understanding the first responder environment

It’s important to understand police and emergency dispatcher priorities to manage expectations of response times.

First, let’s look at how 911 calls are prioritized. Officer response time is based on four important factors:

1. The priority of the emergency (i.e., high, medium, or low)

2. The number of other high-priority calls coming in at the same time

3. The number of officers currently on duty

4. The number of officers needed per call

Next, let’s evaluate what police departments consider a priority emergency. Anything that is in progress or life-threatening takes precedence. For example, a home invasion in progress has a higher priority than a home burglary that happened earlier in the day. A trespasser in the yard, while unnerving, but not threatening anyone or trying to enter a residence, may not be a high priority. A minor car accident with no serious injuries may not prompt any response at all (as Teiara Gamble discovered); the dispatcher will likely tell the drivers to file an electronic report (as the Kansas City officer advised Mark Miller to do) and let their insurance companies fight it out.

Now, consider response times. As of March 2021, Chicago had the best response time to high-priority calls, at 3.46 minutes. Los Angeles was considered the major metro area with the best overall average response times, with an average response time of 5.7 minutes. The Seattle Police Department takes 7 minutes to respond to an average priority call and even longer when responding to low-income, majority nonwhite neighborhoods or to domestic violence calls.

4 steps families can take to prepare for slow police response times

Start off by assuming that police won’t be there for 20 minutes, not five. Now take the following actions.

1. Create a Family Emergency Plan. Prioritize planning, forethought and preparation. Think through how you want your family to be able to respond to emergencies such as fires, medical incidents and accidents, natural disasters, civil disturbances on a city or neighborhood level, pandemics and health crises, and sustained loss of utility services such as power, internet access and wireless phone service. Also plan for less likely but more consequential events such as a home invasion, a nearby act of terror, and intentional or accidental events related to a major chemical leak or explosion.

2. Update and improve your home’s physical security. Determine a place in the house where you, your spouse and your children can shelter in place with some assurance of security. Ideally, establish a safe room or designate a room to serve as one and harden it to keep you safe until police arrive. This is a good time to act on many physical security-related priorities you may not have attended to in the past – from gates and perimeter security to lighting, landscaping and even where and how you tend to any firearms and ammunition in the home.

3. Reassess and upgrade your home’s technical security. Ensure you have effective, well-maintained systems related to perimeter alarms, access control, closed-circuit television monitoring, intrusion detection, fire and life safety, and backup power availability and adequacy.

4. Build relationships with your first responder community. Reach out to local police and sheriff departments to help facilitate any information they may be able to place in their 9-1-1 systems so that if an emergency response occurs, responding officers will be armed with information helpful to ensuring your family’s safety and security.

Prevention is the best approach

In summary, think ahead and act now. A slower-than-usual police response time is only one of many issues you want your family to be prepared to address. You’ll be calmer and more confident in the face of many threats if you view the safety and security of your family through the lens of prevention, planning and preparedness.

Headshot of Marc Debrody

About the author

Marc Debrody
Marc brings a distinguished career of 28 years in federal and local law enforcement, having recently retired as a supervisory special agent from the Secret Service.

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