In August, Salt Lake City police officers took an average of 17 1/2 minutes to respond to their most critical calls — a figure so startling, Police Chief Mike Brown thought it must have been a mistake.
Employees spent 250 hours reviewing the data, which confirmed that the alarming average was correct, Brown said Tuesday.
“I wanted to know what was going on,” Brown said. “And so I had them go through painstaking analysis of that.”
The Sept. 26 shooting of University of Utah football player Aaron Lowe sparked criticism of Salt Lake City police response times. It unfolded at a house party following the team’s Sept. 25 homecoming win against Washington State.
That evening, six noise complaints were reported about the party between 10:38 p.m. and 12:02 a.m., but no officers responded. It wasn’t until just before 12:20 a.m., when someone reported a fight involving a weapon, that police headed that way.
They arrived in the area at 12:25 a.m. Lowe was pronounced dead shortly after 12:30 a.m.
The average officer response time for a loud party or other noise complaint is an hour and 19 minutes, Salt Lake City police spokesperson Brent Weisberg has said. On Tuesday, he clarified that police won’t upgrade the priority of a call if they receive multiple complaints about the same situation or subjects. Only the information reported — not the amount of calls — will prompt police to reprioritize a situation, he said.
Initial August police data showed the average response time to a “priority one” call — which can involve serious or life-threatening injury — was nearly 18 minutes. Last month, the department in a statement said the figure may have been inflated, noting that the agency had initiated “an exhaustive administrative and confirmatory review on the underlying data.”
It was that review that ultimately showed the figure was accurate, Brown said Tuesday.
“[The original thought of a discrepancy] came from me, as the chief, actually sitting here wondering what happened,” Brown said.
That review also verified that September’s average response for “priority one” calls was 14 minutes and 14 seconds. Ideally, that figure should be fewer than 10 minutes, Brown said.
“It’s my responsibility to make sure that we have the resources to serve our community the very best we can,” Brown said Tuesday. “And right now, we’re not doing it to the level that we expect.”
Austen Givens, a Utica College professor and emergency management expert, said providing a barometer for response times can be difficult. Often, there is a disconnect between what the public expects and what agencies are capable of delivering.
“Actual response times are based on a complicated matrix of variables that varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. But some of those variables include the number of officers that are on duty at any given time, the severity of the call for service to which those officers are responding already,” Givens said. “It also can depend on time of day.”
Still, the August average of 17 1/2 minutes struck Givens as “a long time.” He considered the goal of under 10 minutes reasonable. But he cautioned that the use of an average as a statistical tool may include outliers that can skew it. The department has stated however that it excludes calls “with obviously erroneous outlier values.”
Climbing response times have been on the department’s radar, but the spike from July to August was alarming, Brown said. The increase is something officials are still looking into, along with what caused the reported average to decrease from August to September, Brown said.
One of the factors that the department has considered is an increase in calls for service. In 2018, the department was taking an average of 254 calls for service per day. This year, the department is receiving about 310 calls per day.
Although calls are up, crime is reportedly down in Salt Lake County. According to a state crime report for 2020, the county’s crime rate per 1,000 people was 41.9. In 2016, that figure was 50.64.
The department also has a “void of officers” who have left policing, which has caused added stress on the department’s response times, Brown said. It’s an issue that departments across the state are reporting, Mayor Erin Mendenhall said last month.
The Salt Lake City Police Department currently has 55 funded openings, not including a set of new officers already slated to start work once they complete their 10-month training. The department also is looking to hire officers from other agencies in the state, who would only need to train for two weeks, Brown said.
“We’re trying at so many levels to try to answer those calls for service, to hire as fast as we can,” Brown said. “Everybody has seen shortages, everybody’s facing the same things that we’re dealing with right now. But we’re on a good trajectory.”
He pointed to the largest pay increase for law enforcement in city history, which Mendenhall announced in summer, prompting applications.
Moving forward, Brown said the department is looking at introducing call-diversion programs, where some calls may be transferred to other local agencies or organizations that may be better suited to respond.
The department also is working to rehire former officers to help field calls for service that may not need an in-person officer response, a move that stems from a department audit commissioned by the City Council. Brown hoped to have those job openings approved and begin hiring in the next two weeks.