For the past six months, the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department has not been sending officers to respond to many of its calls over the emergency "911" phone lines in a little-known policy geared towards saving time and resources.
Police officials say nearly half the emergency calls have not been bona fide emergencies. Under the new policy, citizens are being asked to report minor traffic accidents, thefts and other crimes by phone, mail or in person.
"The days of police going out to every call are over," said Inspector William Anastos, head of the Police Communications Division that receives 911 and other emergency calls and dispatches patrol units. "We're redirecting our resources," Anastos explained.
The new approach, called "Differential Response," follows a national police trend aimed at reducing crime through better management and community involvement. The plan does not affect how police respond to life-threatening emergencies, and police say it will free more uniformed patrol officers to work in crime prevention.
Although the plan has been in effect for six months, police said the department has not yet officially adopted it and the plan is still being studied.
Differential Response is viewed as a time-saving measure for the department, which last year received 2 million calls for emergency help. According to Anastos, 45 percent of all calls received over 911 or other emergency lines are not emergencies. In the past, dispatchers were obliged to send uniformed officers to take reports on such incidents.
Police, who said every call is judged individually, explained that some emergency calls are "stacked" or prioritized and assigned to an officer after more urgent situations have been resolved. The cases that may be stacked include "cold crimes"--usually crimes against property, such as a burglary in which the suspect is gone--and officers simply take reports and survey the scenes. Police said the time to respond to "stacked" calls could be anywhere from 45 minutes to three hours.
"We don't feel the public is going to be disappointed with delayed response as long we are there when we say we will be," said Lt. Daniel Kerr of the department's community relations office. Kerr said police already have been talking to community and business groups about how the new approach will work.
At-large council member Betty Ann Kane said she first learned of the plan at recent community meetings with police. Kane said she is concerned about how police decide "exactly how serious an incident is" and whether it will lead some citizens to exaggerate in order to assure an immediate response. Kane also said "police intervention at the right time," rather than a delay, could prevent a minor situation from escalating into a serious one.
Council member Wilhelmina Rolark (D-Ward 8) said she favors freeing officers to work more with communities. But Rolark said that anything that would delay police response time might heighten concerns of Southeast communities that already believe residents east of the Anacostia River "don't get the same kinds of services as those west of the river." Rolark said she hopes the plan will be properly monitored so that it will not bear out those concerns.
Many expect the plan to exasperate some citizens accustomed to thinking that police, like firefighters, are supposed to respond to every call.
Last year the D.C. Fire Departmentment received 162,220 emergency calls and responded to every one. They did so, according to Thomas Smoot of the department's public affairs office, because every call must be considered a life-and-death situation. Smoot said there is always the possibility that an apparently minor fire may spread into a more serious blaze. "There's no way we can totally scrutinize a call over the air," Smoot said.
Police officials, however, say that they screen emergency calls more carefully and can differentiate between critical and noncritical calls.
"It would be great if we had enough police officers to say every call will be dispatched within one minute," Inspector Anastos said. "But that would cost millions and millions."