HOUSTON - As the city of Houston works to grow the number of police officers, manpower limitations continue to create challenges for a department that received 1.1 million 911 calls last year. Priority 1 calls are those involving an “imminent threat to life.” According to HPD records, the department received 28,321 of these calls in 2018.
“What is HPD's target in getting to a priority 1 call?” asked Channel 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.
“The target goal has always been the five minute range,” said Houston Assistant Chief of Police Henry Gaw.
When looking at Houston as a whole, Gaw said officers responded to Priority 1 calls in an average of 5.5 minutes, which is down from the 5.84 average time in 2017. However, not every part of town sees the same response time.
HPD divides the city into 120 police beats. When KPRC analyzed records showing average response times in individual beats, we saw several parts of town waiting longer than 6 minutes for a response to Priority 1 calls for help. HPD records show 36 percent of its beats had an average response time of 6 minutes or longer in 2018.
“Why does it take longer to get to a Priority 1 call here, as opposed to here?” Arnold asked Gaw.
“We have to be smart and we have to be data-driven in the things that we do in deploying our officers,” Gaw said.
Gaw said HPD has limited manpower, so officers can't simply be spread evenly across the city.
“We have to send our officers where crime is occurring, because otherwise we'd just be driving around aimlessly,” Gaw said.
HPD officials would not comment on exactly how many officers are assigned to patrol, but Houston Police Officers Union president Joe Gamaldi said the department has between 2,100 and 2,200 officers tasked with responding to an average of more than 3,000 911 calls a day. These calls include everything from shootings to false alarms.
Deploying officers based, in part, on the shifting sands of crime patterns and trends creates other challenges. In beats with fewer officers, if one gets pulled for a special assignment or an officer gets stuck on a lengthy call, then officers may have to come from neighboring beats to fill the void.
“Anytime you call for help, we want to be 'Johnny on the spot,' but unfortunately, we're dealing with a lot of challenges,” Gaw said.
City leaders pledged to grow the department by 500 officers over the next five years. Until then, HPD continues to walk a tightrope of tamping down areas of higher crime, while making sure other areas are covered when emergencies do arise. That struggle is seen in HPD records, which show the department improved response times in nearly 50 percent of its beats last year, while 42 percent of beats noted an increase in response times.
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