As the Minneapolis City Council prepares for its annual budget fight over police staffing, a group of city officials and community members are finalizing a proposal that would change the way the police department handles 911 calls, a policy aimed at curbing the times no police officers are immediately able to respond to emergency situations.
Last week, the leaders of the group — composed of Minneapolis Police Department, 911 dispatchers, emergency responders, public health officials, the city attorney’s office and six citizens — presented a first-of-its-kind public look at 911 call data showing when, where and how often squad cars were unable to immediately respond to emergency situations.
According to the data, which looked at calls occurring between July 2017 and July 2019, over that two-year period more than 20,000 calls lingered in MPD’s dispatch system for awhile and no officers were available.
That number is just slightly more than 5 percent of the system’s total 911 events within the same timeframe. Of all types of calls, those deemed “high-priority” or “Priority 1” — which include reports of gunshots, domestic abuse, assaults, people in mental crisis or other potentially dangerous scenarios — had the largest proportion of calls that fell outside of the department’s guidelines for response times: almost 9 percent.
The data are the first detailed look at 911 responses following news coverage this summer reporting that no Minneapolis police officers were available to respond to almost 7,000 calls to 911 over a 12-month period.
How Minneapolis’ 911 system works
In Minneapolis, once dispatchers get basic information from 911 callers, they label calls in a computerized queue based on the type of emergency — a system that patrol officers can also see via dashboard computers in their squad cars or listen to over the scanner. A significant chunk of 911 calls in Minneapolis receive a “Priority 1” categorization, while another large portion are “Priority 2” calls, which could be reports of property damage, a suspicious person or situations that don’t pose an immediate threat to public safety.
Once officers see a new 911 call with its code in the queue, they weigh whether they should drop what they’re currently doing to respond to the new emergency, or if other officers should help out. That period of time — from when a dispatcher codes a call and officers claim it — in the majority of cases averages about 3 minutes for Priority 1 calls, 25 minutes for Priority 2 calls and 28 minutes for Priority 3 calls, which include reports of illegal parking, thefts or cases where conditions are safe at the time of the call.
If dispatchers notice a call sitting in the queue longer than they should based on the severity and public-safety threat of the emergency, police sergeants on duty are notified. According to Minneapolis’ director of emergency services, Kathy Hughes, who helped present the latest data to the council, that rule is in place to cut back on the time those calls sit in ‘pending’, and a notified sergeant can decide whether to pull an officer from one call to respond to the new call.
After officers claim a call in the queue, the system tracks the time it takes for them to reach the scene. For all calls immediately claimed by officers, police spend an average of 7 to 10 minutes traveling to 911 callers. Not surprisingly, for calls that aren’t claimed immediately by officers and need to be brought to a sergeant’s attention, police spend more time reaching callers: an average of about 17 minutes for Priority 2 calls and roughly 19 minutes for Priority 3 incidents.
Minneapolis’ 911 categorization system is also not always accurate, said Andrea Larson, the city’s director of strategic management. Dispatchers do not always code calls correctly because of miscommunication with callers or because some emergency situations change. “Either [dispatchers] didn’t get all of the information or something happened between when someone is dispatched and when they show up,” Larson said.
Part of debate over police staffing
According to MPD Chief Medaria Arradondo, the response times are a result of two trends: an increasing volume of 911 calls and a widening resident-to-officer ratio. Of MPD’s 880 currently sworn officers, roughly 600 respond to 911 calls — a force size that the chief says is stretched too thin. He has said he wants to grow the city’s police force by 400 officers to meet the demand for emergency services, though crime rates citywide have been on the decline.
Police staffing was at the center of the council’s budget discussions last year. Initially, Mayor Jacob Frey proposed a $1 million spending plan that would have moved eight police officers currently in desk jobs to the streets and backfilled their office positions with civilians.
But citing a “cultural shift” in how the city addresses public safety, the City Council rejected Frey’s proposal. Instead, the council created a new “Office of Violence Prevention” via the city’s health department; expanded a city program partnering mental-health professionals with police officers; and made other investments that Council President Lisa Bender described at the time as “upstream strategies” and alternatives to “traditional policing.”
As part of those discussions, the council also decided to research police response times and explore the potential benefits of a revamped dispatch system, namely whether sworn officers would have more time for urgent matters if citizens handled less serious 911 calls. As an addition to the 2019 budget, the council directed the formation of the work group to determine whether government departments outside of MPD could handle 911 calls that don’t pose an immediate threat to anyone’s safety, such as mental-crisis situations, drug overdoses or noise complaints.
But while exploring if government agencies outside of MPD should handle 911 calls this year, the work group has faced one significant hurdle: Minnesota law. Police officers must handle emergency situations that involve any type of arrest or firearm, and they must be the ones to fill out reports of domestic violence. Yet those same statutes do not outline clear rules for who can respond to 911 calls initially, according to the city’s attorney’s office.
In its meetings this year, the group has also discussed possibly realigning the codes so that not all mental health calls — or those involving an emotionally disturbed person — are “Priority 1,” since some callers may simply need a referral to a mental health professional and not a full police response.
The work group is now about to finalize its recommendations for modifying the 911 system, which will be presented to the council’s Public Safety & Emergency Management Committee on Nov. 13.
Meanwhile, the council is preparing to finalize 2020 spending. Over the next several weeks, it will host three budget hearings — the first of which is Thursday morning — and decide how to amend Frey’s $1.6 billion budget proposal (including a property tax levy increase of 6.95 percent) that again incorporates a boost to MPD’s budget. The mayor wants to add 14 new officers next year: eight outreach officers, three sex-crimes and domestic-assault investigators and three traffic officers.
Council members have said the new 911 data will help them make decisions on Frey’s budget proposal and navigate the upcoming debate over police staffing, which may prove contentious. Reclaim the Block, an advocacy group that wants the city to divest in policing and that interrupted Frey’s budget speech in August, has been asking supporters to gather at all budget hearings and protest the proposal for more police.