In Pr. George's, Police Must Put Many on Hold
Manpower Shortage Means Residents Wait for Officers
By Jamie Stockwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 3, 2004; Page B01
At 9:34 on a recent Saturday night, Fort Washington resident Donald Harris called Prince George's County police to report a five-car pileup on Allentown Road. A dispatcher entered the call into a countywide computer database as Harris waited at the scene.
At 10:55, Harris was still waiting and called again, asking to speak to a supervisor this time. None was available. And the police cruiser sent to the accident scene had been diverted to another call. Harris left a cell phone number, and a note was typed into the database.
Harris's calls were among about 60 requests for assistance put on hold at that hour on June 19, according to a printout from the county's 911 call center. Other callers waited for officers to respond to disorderly conduct, stolen cars and the sounds of gunshots and house alarms ringing through the night.
It wasn't a particularly busy weekend: Harris's request for service was the county's 1,452nd emergency call of the day for a department that averages 2,000 calls daily. The backlog repeats itself on any given day because of an increasing shortage in manpower -- created not only by staff vacancies but also by an organizational structure that police union leaders say channels many officers away from the street.
"You can see that it isn't a one-time thing, that this is happening every night," said Cpl. Donnie Bell, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 89. "Even if it's a top priority call, if there's no one available, then there's no one available to send."
The county has authorized funding for a police force of 1,420 sworn officers, but through April there were just 1,250 officers. Of those, 488 were assigned to respond to calls -- about 39 percent of the force -- according to a police unionaudit. That amounts to less than one officer for every 1,000 of the county's 833,000 residents.
"We have officers calling in all the time talking about staffing levels," Bell said. "Officers are running calls everywhere in the county because there aren't enough of them on patrol."
The Justice Department has no standard for staffing, but experts say that in general, police departments allocate half the force to answering calls.
Police in Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties said they assign roughly half of their officers to the streets. Across the Potomac in Fairfax County, 85 percent of the force responds to calls, according to a 2000 Justice Department report.
Prince George's County Police Chief Melvin C. High said that department leaders recognize there are "challenges associated with the deployment and the allocation of resources" in the county and added that they are working hard to strike "a balance between the number of people we have on patrol to answer calls for service and the number of detectives we have ready to respond to crime scenes. One of our priorities is to be timely in our responses," he said.
Many calls don't require an immediate response, High said, and those can be answered by the department's telephone reporting unit -- officers who take reports and immediately enter them into the computer system. The unit is especially helpful in handling stolen car reports, more than 16,000 of which were received last year in the county, the chief said.
"We want our police to be as efficient as they can be, and this is something that is convenient for the community and far more efficient," High said. "Otherwise they have to wait and wait."
Priority calls include those with a possible crime in progress, such as a house alarm, or an accident with injuries, officials said. The accident Harris called about led to at least two minor neck injuries, but an ambulance arrived within minutes and was able to care for the patients, said Bell, the union officer.
However, for major incidents such as slayings and shootings, officers are rerouted from wherever they are or sent from across the county, Bell said.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company