Though the city of New Orleans is drastically changing the way it handles police officers’ moonlighting, one aspect is likely to stay the same: 911 operators will continue to take calls from officers checking in for their off-duty assignments, even as those operators struggle to answer enough emergency calls on time.

Three recent monthly reports show that up to 12 percent of all calls taken by emergency operators were from officers starting their privately paid-detail work, and reporting in as required by New Orleans Police Department policy. In December, that was 8,129 moonlighting calls out of 69,090 answered at the 911 center.

At the other end of the spectrum, about 10 percent of 911 callers abandon the effort before the operator answers — significantly higher than the 2 percent goal identified as a national standard. In December, 3,866 callers to 911 hung up before an operator answered.

The monthly reports also state the obvious: Abandoned calls are reduced when operators  answer calls more quickly.

Why would off-duty cops be calling the 911 center? Police say it’s good policy to know where uniformed, at-the-ready officers are, even if they’re not on the city time clock.

Could directing those check-in calls elsewhere result in a lower volume of calls — and address the nagging problem of abandoned calls?

The city doesn’t plan to find out soon, saying it won’t change the procedure even though the Police Department is setting up new policies and a new office to manage all off-duty work for its officers.

One council member disagrees with the status quo.

“It’s a bad system,” said Susan Guidry, co-chairwoman of the council’s Criminal Justice Committee. The emergency call center “should be concentrating on 911 calls, and something needs to be done about it.”

Not so, says Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration, which instituted the check-in system and has no plans to change anything. Previously, no one tracked when and where officers were working paid details, spokesman Ryan Berni said.

“Because we now know where officers are in the community, we are able to use them more effectively in case of an emergency,” Berni said. “This is part of good community policing.”

At its meeting today, the City Council was supposed to deliberate ordinances to revamp how paid details are handled, through the new Office of Police Secondary Employment. But the discussion was postponed for the third time.

Paid details are off-duty assignments in which uniformed police officers work security for clients such as restaurants, earning up to $39 an hour. The system for setting up the assignments is now managed by the New Orleans Police Department. When officers arrive at their assignments, they check in with the emergency call center.

Based on reports reviewed by The Lens, about 250 paid detail check-in calls are made each day, coming in to a specific phone number assigned for that purpose. They are assigned the lowest priority in the queue of calls that operators juggle: Emergency calls come first, followed by non-emergency police calls, alarm calls, and then paid-detail calls.

The city says that operators are instructed to hang up on paid-detail calls if an emergency call comes to their station.

911 calls: answered40,662
911 calls: abandoned3,953
NOPD non-emergency line12,017
NOPD paid-detail line7,672
10-digit emergency line6,196

Too many people hang up without reaching a 911 operator

The call center is also struggling with a high rate of abandoned 911 calls, by which the public reports emergencies such as shootings, rapes and other crimes.

In 2011, the city added staff at the call-center to deal with delays “sometimes requiring emergency callers to wait several minutes to reach an operator,” The Times-Picayune reported. Later that year, the city set up the paid-detail line — though the installation itself caused a half-hour of downtime at the call center, causing 123 calls to go unanswered.

Call response times have since improved, and the vast majority of calls are answered within 20 seconds, the national standard. But they’ve slipped recently, according to reports for November through January.

The reports reviewed by The Lens said that “between November and January, more callers waited longer for their 911 [calls] to be answered,” even though there was a slight decrease in the total calls made to the center between December and January.

In November, 3 percent of callers waited more than 20 seconds for their emergency call to be answered; that percentage increased to 4 percent in December, and then to about 5 percent in January, when “2,078 callers waited more than 20 seconds to be answered.”

As call times increase, so does the rate of abandoned calls, the reports say. The high rate of abandoned calls has been a chronic problem since at least May 2011. No more than 2 percent of calls should be abandoned, according to Frith Malin, deputy director of the Orleans Parish Communication District, which provides the infrastructure, equipment and training for city workers employed at the Mid-City emergency call center.

Berni didn’t directly respond to The Lens’ inquiries about whether paid-detail calls have any bearing on call-takers’ response times.

Guidry doesn’t dispute that officials should know where off-duty, uniformed officers are. She just doesn’t think that taking those calls should delay police response times. Instead, she suggests that those officers call a dedicated line that would be under the purview of the Office of Police Secondary Employment.

“This should not be a part of the Orleans Parish Communication District unless the new office of secondary employment is paying for it and overseeing it,” Guidry said.

The need to create a new detail system was made clear in a 2011 report from the U.S. Justice Department, which blasted the system as a major corrupting influence in the Police Department. Because paid details pay so much more than the city does, some officers are more committed to their moonlighting than their day jobs, the report said.

Reforming the off-duty system is a key component of a sweeping, 492-point federal consent decree negotiated between the Justice Department and the city. The nascent Office of Police Secondary Employment is supposed to spread off-duty work more fairly among officers, set rates for certain kinds of work, and address other concerns.

When someone calls 911, the person who picks up is sitting in a new, blast-proof building in Mid-City. The building and equipment are owned by a state agency called the Orleans Parish Communication District, but the people answering the phones work for the Police Department, Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services.

The call-takers sit in $1,000 chairs designed for maximum comfort. A Police Department operator logs each call and forwards it to a dispatcher for one of the three emergency agencies. Dispatchers don’t pull officers from their off-duty gigs unless there’s a major emergency.

Because the call-takers and police dispatchers sit next to each other, they can rapidly transfer information among one another if the system is jammed with calls and there are emergencies to attend to.

Another room, which sits empty most of the time, is used during major events such as the Super Bowl, when the police are out in force, both on-duty and off-duty.

One of every 10 calls is from an officer checking in for off-duty work

The reports, compiled by Malin, do not draw a correlation between the number of abandoned 911 calls and the paid-detail calls, but they note that the rate of abandoned calls is far too high: In November, for example, 8.8 percent of all calls to 911 were abandoned before someone could answer the call.

In general, Malin wrote, abandoned calls “hover around 9-10 percent of 911 call volume. This number is too high, and should be in the range of one or two percent of 911 call volume.”

Call-takers are required to call those people back, which further delays responses to other calls.

Malin said in an interview that her study of the phone system didn’t get to the granular level of determining how much time is added to police response times by running paid-detail calls through the 911 emergency system. Paid-detail calls take anywhere from one to three minutes each and average about ninety seconds, said Malin.

Her report only noted that “as answer times increase, so will abandoned calls.”

Operators at the center spend more than 6 hours a day answering paid-detail calls, according to records of calls made to the center from November through January. That’s almost equal to one full-time employee, on the public dime, answering calls so that off-duty police officers can earn $35 an hour working off-duty.

Who should monitor where off-duty cops are?

Guidry is adamantly calling for an end to the moonlight calls made to the 911 line. “The new office of secondary employment should be taking responsibility for these calls,” she said.

But there are no plans to do so – and the city defends embedding the paid-detail line on public safety grounds.

“There are no immediate plans to change it at this time,” Berni said via email. “Officers call in to document their paid detail presence, activity and availability in case of emergency. This is critical for on-duty supervisors to know where in their districts these additional officers are located and we are able to use them more effectively in case of an emergency.”

Tom Gogola

Tom Gogola covered criminal justice for The Lens from February 2012 to May 2013. He is a veteran journalist and editor who has written on a range of subjects for many publications, including Newsday, New...