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Santa Barbara Police Response Times Come Under Scrutiny

The Police Officers Association questions the effectiveness and accuracy in how the department classifies calls

It’s a charged environment, to say the least, between the Santa Barbara Police Department and city officials as they struggle to hammer out labor negotiations. With Santa Barbara needing to carve out nearly $9 million in budget savings, all departments have had to make sacrifices.

But sources within the police department say they’ve been shouldering an unfair burden, that positions have been slashed over the years and that even more cuts would cause the public to suffer. One specific area of concern centers on the response times of police and how long it takes them to get to the scene of a call.

Noozhawk sat down with the Police Officers Association’s Jaycee Hunter, who definitely has a stake in the process; his cold case detective position could be on the chopping block if labor concessions with the city’s various unions don’t amount to enough to whittle down the budget gap. The city is hoping to scrape together at least $2.6 million in concessions.

Hunter and his colleagues within the association say they’re just trying to give the public a true picture of what the cuts would mean and of the effectiveness of the police, especially in their response times. His basic premise is that police response times are formed with the intent to achieve a goal, instead of evaluating the level of service, and that the way calls are prioritized sets faster response times than are occurring.

When a call comes to emergency dispatch, the operator classifies the call anywhere from priority one to priority four, in order of importance. With no legal restriction on how to classify dispatch calls, it has become a policy decision made by a committee of managers within the police department. They take a vote on how to classify calls, and then those designations are put into the computer and come up automatically when a call goes through dispatch.

The department has time goals it would like to meet for each priority category. Priority one calls have a goal response time of less than seven minutes. Priority two has a goal of less than 15 minutes, and Hunter said more serious calls are being put in that category because their times are slower.

According to raw data from police dispatch, 56 priority one calls were received in January. A breakdown of the calls shows that 28 were traffic-related. Most of those incidents occurred downtown and had a relatively quick average response time of 5.67 minutes. With fire and medical teams usually the first on the scene in an injury accident, Hunter questions the validity of leaving traffic accidents as a top priority.

Of the month’s 56 calls, only eight were in-progress assault calls, which “a cop would look at and say, ‘Yeah, that’s a priority one call,’” Hunter said. February’s numbers were even more dramatic, and 22 of its 36 priority one calls were traffic accidents.

Of the 56 priority one calls received by the Santa Barbara Police Department in January, 28 were traffic-related, and most occurred downtown
Of the 56 priority one calls received by the Santa Barbara Police Department in January, 28 were traffic-related, and most occurred downtown. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

“It’s a complex issue. ... But it still goes back to a lack of cops, and that there’s a lot of juggling with the numbers,” Hunter said.

There were 1,197 priority two calls for January, of which 70 were domestic disputes, calls that historically are problematic and can end up in homicide, Hunter said.

Why aren’t they included in priority one?

“The answer is it would destroy priority one response times,” he said. The average response time for the 70 domestic disputes was 11.8 minutes, according to the data.

Fights also end up in the priority two category, and Hunter said that many of the department’s gang homicides come from this category, while silent robbery alarms end up in priority one, “99 percent of which are false alarms,” he said.

In addition, calls that wait more than 30 minutes are filtered out of the averages, and because there are two to four of such calls per month, they’re no longer “aberrations,” he said.

For context, Noozhawk called three police chiefs for their perspective on priority one responses. Santa Barbara Police Chief Cam Sanchez declined to respond to repeated requests for comment, and Ventura Police Chief Ken Corney also was unavailable.

San Luis Obsipo Police Chief Deborah Linden said she didn’t think it was unusual to see traffic accidents listed as a priority one call.

“We have to investigate every one of those collisions, as well as provide aid with traffic control, dispatching tow trucks” and the like, she said. “That’s still a very high priority for our officers.” But she said in-progress crimes still remain at the top of the department’s list, including domestic violence calls.

The San Luis Obsipo department has lost positions over the years, but Linden said she couldn’t comment on how understaffing has affected response times.

Meanwhile, the Santa Barbara Police Department, which employs 198 permanent staff, has been one of the most affected during the city’s budget talks.

With 88 percent of the department’s $32.6 million budget going toward salaries and benefits, personnel cuts seem inevitable. The department is authorized to have 140 sworn employees, but only 121 are active because of injuries or military deployments. However, when police officials gave their budget presentation to the City Council last month, Chief Sanchez said response times had actually dropped, despite fewer staff, with 57 total patrol officers.

Officers’ response times hovered around eight minutes in 2008, he told the council, while times were less than six minutes since the beginning of 2010.

“We have really taken it down quite a bit from two years ago, in terms of response times,” he said.

Santa Barbara Deputy Police Chief Frank Mannix denied Wednesday that response times had been altered because of their priority status. “There is zero effort to manipulate that data to artificially adjust that downward,” he said.

Mannix also confirmed that calls are automatically prioritized by the computer system, and that while dispatchers have the discretion to override the priority of the call, they don’t do that often.

“The reason a dispatcher would downgrade a priority call has nothing to do with response times,” he said. Instead, it’s a judgment call based on the importance of the incident.

A dispatcher could take a call down in priority, but likewise could bump it up in status, Mannix said. “These priorities were put in place well before this current budget year,” he said, adding that they remained largely unchanged from when the department switched companies with its dispatching system in 2008.

“Priorities are a function are of what resources you have available,” he said.

The Santa Barbara Police Department is full-service, meaning “if someone calls 9-1-1 and asks for a police officer, they’re going to get one,” Mannix said, even if it takes a while.

He said many agencies aren’t like that. “They will simply say, ‘I’m sorry, sir, we don’t respond to a traffic accident unless there’s an injury,” he said. “That’s a level of service that many large jurisdictions are forced to provide because they don’t have the resources. However, we currently have the resources to be a full-service department.”

Hunter said he has no doubts that Sanchez was accurately quoting the response time, as it was formed. “The issue is what is he really quoting? The numbers leave out a lot of serious calls,” he said.

The Fire and Police Commission will meet at 10 a.m. Friday in the Council Chambers for a special presentation from the Police Officers Association. The meeting will be open to the public.

“It doesn’t matter what political perspective you possess, the stuff going on with the police department concerns all groups,” Hunter said. “There’s one thing everybody agrees with: You want to have a strong, proactive public safety department in your city service, and that’s not what you have right now.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Noozhawk intern Michael Goldsholl contributed to this report.

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