Credit: Charles Maldonado / The Lens

Since last fall, the New Orleans Police Department has brought down the time it takes for officers to respond to emergencies. They’ve done that in part by lowering the importance of some calls. Department leaders say they need to prioritize life-threatening situations in order to manage the workload with fewer officers. But are they overlooking some true emergencies?

Early one morning in January, a woman in eastern New Orleans dialed 911 for the third time that week. Each complaint was about the same man: the ex-boyfriend of a friend who had visited her house.

She told the 911 call-taker the man had shown up with his sister. The two threatened the woman and her teenage daughter, and the sister had brandished a knife.

Police initially treated it as an emergency, what they refer to as a “Code 2” call. That’s the same priority given to shootings and armed robberies.

Still, it took an hour for officers to arrive. By then, the man and his sister were gone. An officer downgraded the call to a low-priority “Code 1,” similar to reports of suspicious people, public disturbances and fender-benders.

It’s this final priority level that the department uses to track emergency response times.

More and more, the New Orleans Police Department is lowering the importance of some 911 calls — before and after officers arrive — as its thinly-stretched patrol division prioritizes life-threatening emergencies.

Such downgrades have increased 43 percent from October to July, according to a Lens analysis of 911 calls.

This has happened as department leaders have tried to shave minutes from officers’ response times for emergencies.

Call downgrades are at least partially responsible for a recent reduction in those response times, according to our analysis. The two go hand-in-hand: With fewer emergency calls in the queue, the average time to get to them should drop.

Police Department officials acknowledge that they’re downgrading more calls because they’re short-staffed. There are about one-quarter fewer police officers now than when Mayor Mitch Landrieu took office in 2010.

The increase in call downgrades shows that the department is doing a better job of separating true emergencies from things that can wait, said Deputy Chief Paul Noel, who’s in charge of all patrol officers.

“We’re being a little harder on our supervisors about what is really an emergency call,” he said.

Many of the calls are routine, such as burglar alarms, which often turn out to be false alarms. But we found hundreds of calls that, before they were downgraded, were classified as serious crimes: aggravated assaults, domestic violence and home break-ins.

The call from the woman in eastern New Orleans, who declined to speak to The Lens, was originally classified as an aggravated assault.

The confrontation appeared to be related to an incident two days before, according to the 911 call-taker’s notes and the police report. That time, the woman reported that the man came into her house and choked and beat up his girlfriend, who had a protection order against him.

“That’s the problem with getting to something late. … We need to get there while the emergency is still going.”—Capt. Michael Glasser, head of the Police Association of New Orleans

The police came in about nine and a half minutes — a couple minutes slower than the department’s goal for most emergency calls —  but he had left by then. A warrant was issued for his arrest.

The next day, the woman reported that the man was there again. The police treated it as an urgent situation, arriving in 17 minutes. Again, it was too late to catch him.

Friday morning, she called 911 a third time. She said she had told the man to leave, but he threatened her, saying, “You got in my business. Now I’m in yours.”

After police arrived and didn’t find the man, they took a report and changed the call to a disturbance, a low-priority call, NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble said. Because it was reclassified, that call wasn’t included in the department’s statistics for emergency response times.

NOPD improves response times after news reports

In October, The Advocate and WWL-TV reported that the average response time for urgent calls had doubled since 2010, to 20 minutes.

The department started to bring that down. Code 2 response times were a frequent topic at weekly meetings where police officials discussed crime statistics and deployment strategies.

Until then, “we weren’t managing this at all, since we weren’t managing response time data,” Noel said.

23 minutesAverage response time for urgent calls in October16 minutesAverage response time for urgent calls in July

The department moved officers from administrative to patrol duties. They introduced overlapping shifts to avoid backlogs at shift change. They started to send out “hot cars” to see if a call was truly urgent.

The average response time for urgent calls dropped from about 23 minutes in October to about 19 minutes in November.

By June, Chief Michael Harrison told the City Council, the average response time for a Code 2 call was 12 minutes, 47 seconds. (The Advocate and WWL reported in May that response times fluctuated between 14 and 17 minutes, which is consistent with The Lens’ analysis.)

Meanwhile, more urgent calls have been reprioritized as non-urgent. In July, 30.7 percent of urgent calls were downgraded, up from 21.5 percent in October. (This does not include a small number of calls downgraded from Code 2 to Code 0, the lowest priority.)

On an annual basis, the department is downgrading more calls:

“We’re being a little harder on our supervisors about what is really an emergency call.”—NOPD Deputy Chief Paul Noel

  • 2014: 19 percent
  • 2015: 21 percent
  • 2016 (through July): 26 percent

Jeff Asher, a crime analyst who worked with WWL and the Advocate on their stories, said he’s not surprised to see more downgrades, considering the department’s focus on emergency response times.

Ben Horwitz, director of analytics for the NOPD, said the department also upgrades some calls. That’s true, but downgrades outnumbered upgrades 3-to-1 from January through July.

There are valid reasons to downgrade calls, Horwitz said.

For instance, the dispatch system automatically considers certain types of calls urgent, even if they occurred hours or days earlier. Sometimes a 911 call-taker gets new information — for instance, that the caller is no longer in danger.

Asher said he would like to know the department’s procedure for downgrading. Noel said there isn’t one. “Supervisors have to make a judgment call,” he said.

Department leaders have not directed supervisors around the city to limit the number of high-priority calls, Noel said.

911 records provided by the city don’t show who decided to downgrade a call or when it happened.

22 minutesAverage response time for urgent calls in July 201522%Of urgent calls downgraded in July 2015

16 minutesAverage response time for urgent calls in July 201631%Of urgent calls downgraded in July 2016

Capt. Michael Glasser, who heads the Police Association of New Orleans, said it’s not uncommon for officers to downgrade calls after they arrive on the scene.

If “by the time we get there it’s no longer an emergency, that’s the problem with getting to something late,” he said. “We need to get there while the emergency is still going.”

On some downgraded calls, the call-taker’s notes mention a backlog or say no officers are available. But officers should not downgrade calls simply because they’re backed up, Horwitz said.

Without checking the circumstances of each call, there’s no way to know whether officers are downgrading the right ones, Noel said.

“I’m not going to tell you that every single call is being handled the best way that we’d like,” he  said. “We have supervisors making bad decisions; we take corrective action when we need to.”

More calls are being downgraded in eastern New Orleans

The trend is particularly striking in the 7th District in eastern New Orleans, which has struggled with slow response times.

The 7th is the largest police district and home to some of the city’s highest-crime neighborhoods. So far this year, it has logged the most police 911 calls. It’s not surprising that the district has the worst response times for emergencies.

Last year, The Advocate reported that officers in the 7th District took an average of 29 minutes to respond to urgent calls, nearly twice the citywide average.

“If you’re going to focus on making sure an emergency is an emergency,” Asher said, “that’s where you’d do it.”

Now the average is down to about 25 minutes, according to our analysis.

Call downgrades in the 7th District have risen from about 24 percent of urgent calls in January to 36 percent in July. If those calls hadn’t been downgraded, the average response time would have been higher.

17%Of urgent calls in Algiers were downgraded in January44%Were downgraded in July

In the 4th District, which covers Algiers, about 17 percent of urgent calls were downgraded in January. By July, it had jumped to about 44 percent.

The 8th District, which covers the French Quarter, Central Business District and Faubourg Marigny, hasn’t seen a similar jump. So far this year, it has logged the lowest percentage of call downgrades and the shortest average response time for emergencies.

That’s not surprising given the police presence in the relatively compact area; the Police Department, state troopers and off-duty officers all patrol parts of the 8th District.

Percent of urgent calls downgraded
Average response time for urgent calls
District 1: Mid-City
and Treme
 23.37% 12:47
 District 2: Carrollton, Hollygrove, University District 34.94%12:39
 District 3: Gentilly and Lakeview 24.8% 16:01
 District 4: Algiers30.26%13:35
 District 5: Seventh Ward, St. Roch, Bywater, Lower 9th Ward 22.11%18:45
 District 6: Garden District, Irish Channel, Central City 27.16% 13:03
 District 7: Eastern New Orleans 30.5% 24:54
 District 8: French Quarter, CBD, Marigny 18.71%11:59

What counts as an emergency?

False burglar alarms are a nuisance for cops. They can be triggered by faulty installation, power outages, even thunderstorms. But the city’s 911 system automatically classifies them as urgent.

“Ninety-nine percent of those calls are false alarms,” Noel said. “When I was an officer, I remember some burglar alarms would go off [at] the same time every day.”

Last year, the City Council passed a law establishing fines of up to $150 for property owners with frequent false alarms. The law allows police to ignore alarms with a history of crying wolf.

Burglar alarms make up the largest group of downgraded calls. Through July of this year, 32 percent of downgraded calls were burglar alarms. That’s twice what it was in 2014.[module align=”left” width=”half” type=”pull-quote”]“If you’re talking about 20,000 downgrades, a lot of them are going to be random complaints and false alarms.”—Jeff Asher, crime analyst[/module]

The second largest category is “Signal 21,” a catch-all category. Many of those calls were originally classified as other crimes: fights, disturbances or prowlers.

That’s also true of the third-largest category, disturbances. Many of these calls started out as fights, batteries or aggravated assaults.

“If you’re talking about 20,000 downgrades, a lot of them are going to be random complaints and false alarms,” said Asher, who once worked as a crime analyst for the city.

But in the push to use officers’ time more efficiently, there’s a danger that true emergencies will be overlooked.

“I guess the friendliest way of saying it is, you’re going to have these types of incidents that slip through the cracks that shouldn’t be downgraded,” he said.

Some of the remaining calls appear — judging by 911 call data — to be more serious. That includes hundreds of calls regarding domestic violence, battery and what the department refers to as “mental patient” calls, many of which involve threats of violence or suicide.

Many of those calls were downgraded in urgency when they were reclassified as less-serious offenses.

In May, a woman on Wisteria Street in Gentilly Terrace called the police to report that a bullet had come through her wall. She told the 911 call-taker she was afraid to go outside.

“I thought it was an urgent call. It seems like gunfire constitutes urgent.”— Tiffany Eyer, whose tenant called 911 after a bullet came through her wall

Police arrived four hours later.

At some point, the call was downgraded and reclassified. It started out as “aggravated criminal damage,” a felony, meaning someone’s life may be in danger. It was changed to “simple criminal damage,” a misdemeanor.

Landlord Tiffany Eyer said she talked to her tenant at the time. They didn’t know the call had been downgraded.

“I thought it was an urgent call,” Eyer said. “It seems like gunfire constitutes urgent.”

The 3rd District, which covers Gentilly and Lakeview, has the third slowest average response time for urgent calls this year. Downgrades there went from about 19 percent of urgent calls in January to about 30 percent in July.

This year, 19 armed robberies have been downgraded.

One occurred in Faubourg Marigny in April. About 1 a.m., three young men robbed four people at gunpoint, taking their phones, credit cards and cash. The police arrived after about an hour.

One of the victims, who asked not to be identified, said all three robbers had guns and one “pointed it in my face.”

Fortunately, she said, it happened on her block. She and her friends ran to her home and called 911, saying they saw which way the robbers went.

“You’re going to have these types of incidents that slip through the cracks that shouldn’t be downgraded.”—Jeff Asher, crime analyst

Normally armed robberies are considered urgent, but this one was downgraded. Noel said that was the right decision because the victims weren’t in danger.

“If we find out later that the caller was calling from their residence … we know they’re safe,” he said. “That no longer would require an emergency lights and sirens response.”

The victim agreed with Noel’s reasoning.

But she noted that there was a string of armed robberies in the area around the same time. In the week before, three armed robberies were reported nearby. A few days later, there were three more. All involved three perpetrators.

Police did not make an arrest that night.

“The later you get there, the more likely that is to happen,” Glasser said. “When you get to a call, complainants are no longer there, witnesses are not longer there, perpetrators are no longer there.”

Gamble said the investigation is ongoing.

Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado is the editor of The Lens. He previously worked as The Lens' government accountability reporter, covering local politics and criminal justice. Prior to joining The Lens, he worked for...