Is Help on the Way for City’s Troubled 911 System? We’re Still Waiting…

Chicago Ald. Deborah Graham (29th) had a bit of a problem a few months back at her ward office in the Austin area.

A volunteer who had been acting strangely was told that his services were no longer needed, and he got belligerent with the alderman’s staff, Graham said. So her employees called 911 and they…well…they waited. And waited. And waited.

How long?

According to the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC)—which does the emergency dispatching—it took about nine minutes to farm out the call to the cops (just within the 10-minute window for these types of calls.) After that, it appears to have taken another 15 to 20 minutes for officers to get to the scene, according to an OEMC spokesman.

“I’m like, ‘Damn, I’m the alderman and can’t get a car to come!'” Graham told the Better Government Association in a recent interview.

Residents of the Far West Side ward say, Welcome to the club.

One of the most pressing issues in the area is how police respond to emergency calls. Residents aren’t just concerned about response times, but about which calls get priority and, frankly, which calls get blown off.

And plenty seem to get ignored, residents told the BGA, although the cops dispute that claim.

Serethea and Ron Reid have become so alarmed by slow and non-existent 911 response, they've formed a community organization to make their voices heard.

“It’s the only place probably in the country where this happens: you call the police and they don’t come,” said Ron Reid, who, with his wife Serethea, helped to create the Central Austin Neighborhood Association this past summer to pressure the cops and city to more aggressively address crime and other quality-of-life issues.

The Reids attended one of our BGA Citizen Watching Training Programs in Austin a couple months ago. And they told us about the 911 problem. Which led to an investigation we conducted with FOX Chicago News.

Our joint partnership revealed the city plans to alter the current 911 system and weed out certain categories of response. In other words, certain “quality-of-life” calls—barking dogs, crying babies, stumbling drunks—may no longer prompt a police response. Rather, such calls could be diverted to other city departments, or even to the web where residents would fill out reports online.

The aim isn’t bad: the city’s trying to improve response times and focus on the most serious incidents.

But just how bad are Chicago’s response times?

We were only able to get a handle on Graham’s incident because we hounded OEMC for weeks.

But trying to get an answer on how responses are handled citywide, ward-by-ward or district-by-district, forget it. You have a better chance—at least as of now—of winning the lottery than obtaining that information.

The Daley administration cites “security reasons” in refusing to release it. But that doesn’t pass the smell test.

Are police and dispatch response times so bad that officials don’t want to show the data to anyone, including the communities that have the most at stake? Or is it that some wards, districts or neighborhoods get fast responses while others wait an intolerable amount of time? That is something the public has a right to know as we look at the distribution of police manpower across the city. And assess the performance of police within a given ward or district or community. We’re not asking for the response time in a particular block, which could leave citizens vulnerable. But there is no security issue in disclosing response times in large geographic areas.

If you agree, or think this merits further discussion, we urge you to contact the following officials:

OEMC Executive Director Jose Santiago: 312-746-9111

Chicago Corporation Counsel Mara Georges: 312-744-0200

And we urge the incoming mayor, Rahm Emanuel, to commit to greater transparency so we can better police the people whose salaries we pay, and who are entrusted with protecting Chicagoans. Meanwhile, we encourage you to follow the example of the Reids and attend one of our watching training programs.

You can learn about the program and watch a training video on our web site. The more eyes and ears we have in our good government campaign, the more likely it is that we will eventually have the good government we deserve.

This blog entry was reported and written by Robert Herguth, the BGA’s editor of investigations. Contact us with tips, suggestions and complaints at (312) 821-9030, or at rherguth@bettergov.org.

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Filed under Investigations, Watchdogs in the News

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