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3 problems with response time analysis (and why you need it anyway)

In PoliceOne "First Person" essays, PoliceOne Members candidly share their own unique personal insights on issues confronting cops today, as well as opinions, observations, and advice on living life behind the thin blue line

Editor’s Note: This week’s PoliceOne First Person essay is from PoliceOne Member Austin Albertson, who examines response time analysis. In PoliceOne "First Person" essays, our Members and Columnists candidly share their own unique view of the world. This is a platform from which individual officers can share their own personal insights on issues confronting cops today, as well as opinions, observations, and advice on living life behind the thin blue line. If you want to share your own perspective with other P1 Members, simply send us an email with your story.

By Austin Albertson, PoliceOne Member

When attempting to compile data for any sort of analysis, there are multiple variables which can mask the true statistical number. It is important for analysts to identify how these variables impact proper analysis and provide context for data. 

The same is true for response time analysis. Analysts should be able to identify the problems with response time analysis and how to overcome those problems. 

This allows the analyst to properly define how long it takes an officer to get from Point A to Point B, while still providing context for that time.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics
First, almost every agency measures “response time” differently. Some cities use a “hello to hello” standard. This is the time it takes for a dispatcher to pick up the phone (“hello”) and the time it takes the police officer to arrive on scene (“hello”). 

Other agencies break this time into multiple chunks, such as how long the dispatcher stays on the line, how long the officer is en route to the call, and how long the officer is on scene. 

Where one city might automatically exclude anything over a certain time another city will just include every call sent to their call center. There are probably as many response time definitions as there are police departments across the country.

2.) Location and shift also play a large role in the varying averages of response time. Officers in an urban setting typically take longer to respond to a call than their rural counterparts. This is due to multiple factors, such as speed of surrounding traffic and fewer direct routes to the scene. 

On the other hand, due to the expansive nature of rural cities and towns, these officers typically have farther to travel to get from call to call, but can arrive in a shorter time. Furthermore, the same officer will take far longer to respond during rush hour traffic as opposed to late night calls. Attempting to compare these two response times is unsound because they are not comparable times. Comparing response times should compare like terms, rural to rural and rush-hour to rush-hour.

3.) Call volume also plays a significant factor in response time. Officers who have multiple calls “holding” are going to prioritize their workload so that the most important calls have the highest priority. 

In 2013, the Detroit Police Department famously reported a 58 minute average response time for calls. Further analysis of the breakdown of calls shows that they had identified calls as priority, when, in fact, they were not. When factoring in truly significant calls, the response time was a far more reasonable 15 minutes. 

While this may seem like a long time, it is important to note that various political and economic factors have plagued the Detroit area leading to an increase in response time.

Why You Need Response Time Analysis Anyway
Regardless, response time is a very good way to build rapport with the citizens of a town. Making the citizens feel safer gives them more confidence in their police department. Increasing the relationship between the police department and its citizens leads to a more cooperative population. Having a cooperative population leads to better report data — citizens who are more likely to report suspicious activity, and less likely to have confrontations with on-scene officers. It is amazing how much better a police department can operate just by shortening response times and building a rapport with its citizens.

Additionally, a close study of response time can identify problem areas in a city that may not have been noticed before. 

For example, recent construction along a major highway may negatively impact traffic around the city more than anticipated which, in turn, makes it harder for officers to respond. Also, certain traffic lights may not be calibrated properly leading to unreasonably long wait times which would be compounded by rush-hour traffic. Allowing the proper department(s) to redirect traffic during constructions and fix lighting problems can easily ameliorate faster than average response times.

Response times are also very useful component in monthly or yearly police evaluations. While most officers fear the dread of an evaluation, it is an important tool for rookie officers to better hone their skills. 

If a supervisor identifies a rookie officer who has a longer response time than average, then it allows the supervisor to train the officer in underutilized traffic shortcuts, call volume management, or even enrolling in a police defensive driving course. Developing any one of these key skills allows less experienced officer to learn from a seasoned officer supervisor and could lead to them taking the initiative and reporting problem areas in the city that administration may not be aware of.

As an administrator or supervisor, it is important to note the difficulties in comparing one city to cities across the country. The time and date of a response time should only be compared to a similar dates and times. This allows for proper judgment when determining if a response time is significantly higher or lower than anticipated.

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