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Life, death & 911: Thousands in crisis left waiting for Detroit police

Reports prompt removal of 911 director, new policies
Posted: 11:51 AM, Feb 24, 2019
Updated: 2019-06-20 14:36:28-04
DETROIT (WXYZ) — They hid in bedrooms, cowered behind doors and ran down city streets. Some lived in Detroit for only a few years, others their entire lives. But all of them were waiting for police.

At a time when the city touts the fastest response time to 911 calls in well more than a decade — 13 minutes for priority one calls — thousands of the most urgent calls to police each year still leave victims waiting 30 minutes or more for help. Hundreds wait longer than an hour. From 2017 to 2018, the number of calls waiting at least 30 minutes to receive a response swelled by more than 70%.

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A 7 Action News investigation reveals that, over a 20-month period, 650 priority one calls took more than 60 minutes to receive a response. The calls include reports of active shootings, rapes in progress, felonious assaults, armed robberies, armed attacks from the mentally ill and suicides in progress.

(Watch the 7 Investigators documentary now on Roku , AppleTV and Amazon Fire TV .)

More than 18,000 priority two calls, which are less urgent but sometimes just as serious as priority one, took 60 minutes or longer to receive a response last year, according to department data.

“In too many instances, we don't measure up...we are falling short in a whole lot of different areas.”

Before it was even published, a months-long 7 Action News investigation forced 109 investigations into individual 911 responses, triggered discipline for at least 32 employees and led to a slew of new policies for investigating lengthy response times. In April, citing our reporting, Chief James Craig removed 911 Director James Fleming from his position. A department spokesperson said he "didn't meet the standards" set by DPD.

“In too many instances, we don’t measure up,” said Willie Bell, Chairman of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners. “We’re trying to portray that we are better now in 2019 than we were two or three years ago. That is true, but the reality of it is that we are falling short in a whole lot of different areas.”

To be clear, the average response time for priority one calls is far better today than it was when the city declared bankruptcy in 2013, when response times averaged between 30 and 40 minutes.

Shortly after being hired in May 2013, Detroit Police Chief James Craig reclassified what was and wasn’t considered a priority one crime, greatly reducing the pool of the most urgent calls and making it easier for officers to respond more quickly. Combined with the department’s efforts to hire more officers, response times quickly began to fall.

By 2017, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and others were touting the city’s successes.

“I want to congratulate Chief Craig and the men and women of the Detroit Police Department for how far we have come,” Duggan said at his annual State of the City address in 2017. “It’s a far cry from the day when 911 calls averaged 30 minutes.”

Months later, at a ribbon cutting for the city’s new emergency response center, Assistant Chief James White made similar comments.

“Today, (average response time) sits at about 12 minutes and I think that deserves an acknowledgment,” White said to applause.

'That should be important'

But no one was applauding at the response 82-year-old Vera Glenn received from police last July. Glenn has resided in Detroit most of her life but has lived by herself since her husband of 60 years died in 2017.

On the morning of July 22, Glenn was woken up when a burglar punched her in the face, ransacked her house and escaped with valuables. Terrified, she ran across the street to her neighbor who placed a call to 911 at 4:30 AM.

Eight minutes later, Glenn herself called police.

“Someone just broke in my house,” she told an operator, gasping for breath. “Beat me up in the face.”

The operator said a vehicle would be dispatched as soon as possible, but an hour would pass and no police were in sight.

By 5:30 that morning, Glenn’s grandson had arrived and quickly called 911 asking for help. 45 minutes later, with still no officer on the scene, another family member placed a call.

“We call and say someone broke in and assaulted her, that should be something important.”

“She’s been struck, she has a lump on her face,” said Glenn’s granddaughter. “No cop has come or did anything.”

Then, at 8:41 a.m. — 4 hours since the first call for help — a fifth call was made to 911.

“I know a lot of crime goes on in Detroit, but this is unacceptable. This is my grandmother. This is an elderly lady,” said the young woman. “We call and say someone broke in and assaulted her, that should be something important.”

Police did ultimately show up, Glenn’s family says, around Noon: seven hours after the first call was placed.

The response to the call, according to DPD officials, is now under investigation.

(Listen to 911 calls below. There will be pauses in the sound as personal information is redacted)

No units available

August 23 was an especially busy night for Detroit police. A number of priority one calls — the most operators receive — were quickly backing up.

One of them came from the 15000 block of Mettetal in Rosedale Park. A woman called 911 just before 10:30 p.m. once shots rang out on her front yard.

“They’re shooting outside. They’re fighting. The kids, they’re shooting at the house,” a female voice whispered.

“How many shots did you hear?” asked the 911 operator.

“At least three,” the caller replied.

The operator promised to dispatch a unit as soon as possible; she didn't mention that there were no units available.

Internal department records reveal that on that night alone, seven priority one calls took 60 minutes or more to receive a response from police, including calls regarding child abuse, felonious assault and a report of a dead body.

When police finally did make the scene on Mettetal, 75 minutes had passed. By then, the shooter was gone.

“Somebody could have been dead,” one witness told 7 Action News. “Nobody would have known.”

It was a similar story three nights later on August 26, when six priority one calls took longer than 60 minutes to get a response. None took longer than the call from the 18000 block of Waltham.

That’s when a mother called 911 after her son, who suffers from mental illness, threatened to kill her. It was 1:50 a.m.

“He’s threatened my life and he’s threatened my kids’ life,” she told an operator.

“Can he be picked up?” the operator asked?

The operator quickly took down her address, telling her, “police are requested out to that location.”

But an hour passed, and no one from DPD had arrived. As her son became more violent, she called again. By then, her son had left the house and his mother was following him in her car.

“Can they please hurry up?” asked the woman, quickly becoming more exasperated.

“They’re waiting for a scout car to become available,” the operator replied. “They’re backed up on priority ones now.”

“I just had to run from the house, that's why I don't have an address...I've been calling you guys since last night.”

Over the course of more than nine hours, records show the mother called 911 at least 10 times, with her final call coming in just after 11:30 a.m.

“Detroit 911, what is the address of your emergency?” asked the operator.

“I do not have an address,” screamed a voice into the phone. “I need some help immediately. I just had to run from the house, that’s why I don’t have an address…I’ve been calling you guys since last night.”

The woman had been chased out of her home by her son, she would later say, who was wielding a bat.

“I’ve been calling you guys since last night,” she said again. “No one has ever showed up!”

Once Detroit police made the scene, officials say, the woman’s son was taken into protective custody.

The response to the 911 call is now under investigation.

'We're not perfect'

Assistant Chief James White acknowledged that thousands of priority one and two calls take too long, but stressed that his department regularly responds to priority one calls, on average, in 12 minutes.

White stressed that some priority one calls that received a slow response didn’t start out as serious when they were first called it; some began as priority two calls but were later upgraded once the situation escalated.

Still, he acknowledged failures and flaws revealed by WXYZ’s investigation.

“You certainly have shown, based on your research, that there are some calls that are in question,” White said. “We found some problems in our process.”

Number of officers fall while calls rise

Today, the number of officers patrolling the streets sits at 1,503, according to DPD, a dramatic fall from 1,758 officers in 2012.

But demand for police services hasn’t fallen.

“Perhaps we can’t respond to the volume of calls,” said Willie Bell, the chairman of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners. “That’s the reality. It’s an alarming number of people requesting police services in the city of Detroit.”

In 2017, 1,748 priority one calls took more than 30 minutes to receive a response, according to city's data portal posted online. By 2018, that number swelled to 2,994 — an increase of more than 70 percent.

DPD officials say some of the response times reflected in its data are due to user error, such as officers forgetting to press the "on scene" button in their squad cars. Despite repeated requests, a department spokeswoman never provided WXYZ with figures it deemed more accurate.

From January 2017 through September 2018, records reviewed by 7 Action News show 650 priority one calls took at least 60 minutes to receive a response from police. The most common reason for a delay: no units available.

The calls include 185 reports of felonious assaults in progress, 20 cases of child abuse, 35 reports of active shootings, 11 reports of armed robbery, seven calls of suicide in progress and five reports of rape in progress.

While priority one calls are the most urgent, they’re not the only 911 calls that warrant a quick response. Priority two calls can sometimes be just as serious and include reports of assault and battery, suicide threats and unarmed attacks from the mentally ill. In 2018, 18,523 priority two calls took more than an hour to receive a response.

“The reality is, potentially, they could be just as life-threatening,” Bell said.

"It's like I was calling a bank"

Almost every day in Detroit, calls to 911 are put on hold. It happens when operators receive more calls than they can answer, placing the call into a queue that’s picked up once an operator is available. Most hold times, officials say, are around a minute.

Stephanie Chambers didn’t know 911 calls could be put on hold until she called herself.

On November 27, 2017, her boyfriend, Daryl Shannon, slit his throat at his mother’s home on Piedmont Street in Detroit.

“I ran outside and dialed 911,” Chambers said, “and that’s when the process started. It was like I was calling DTE. It said, ‘Please hold while the next available operator answers your call.’“

Chambers hung up and dialed again, along with her daughter, Sierra Rouse. Both continued to be placed on hold.

DPD doesn’t retain records for specific calls placed into its queue, but Chambers and Rouse estimate they spent twenty to thirty minutes trying to reach an operator.

While they dialed, Shannon continued to hemorrhage blood.

Once an operator finally answered Shannon’s call, EMS and police were dispatched. Police records show that an ambulance arrived within two minutes, but because a weapon was involved, EMS policy prohibited responders from entering the home until police arrived first.

Records show that another 14 minutes went by before officers arrived on scene. Once they did, Shannon was pronounced dead.

“I just heard my mom scream,” Rouse said. “I’ll remember the sound of that scream in ten years. It was horrible.”

“If they had gotten there sooner, the might have been able to help him.”

Our reporting revealed what was news even to Detroit police: through the first three months of this year, more than 6,000 calls lingered for 60 seconds or more before being answered by a call taker. Another 980 callers sat for two minutes or more.

Every day in Detroit, an average of 500 calls to 911 are on hold for some period of time, with the average wait time being just under 40 seconds.

In March, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan responded to our investigation into problems with 911 and said delays in responding to calls shouldn't happen.

“Do we have issues with the calls?” Duggan asked. “I don’t think a call to 911 should go to hold. Do we have enough call takers?”

The short answer: no.

Today, the city is short seven call takers, but at its lowest point this year, it was down 24 call takers short. Assistant Chief White blames attrition for the vacancies, but says the city is is poised to add a class of 12 in the coming weeks.

Until we started asking questions, DPD didn’t know how many calls were hearing the voice message every day. But as a result of our reporting, the department now tracks the number of calls being delayed and the length they’re on hold.

“We built a new system based on the inquiries that you made, to be candid,” Asst. Chief White said.

Now that DPD is aware of when calls stack up the most, they’ve added more call takers during the busiest hours of the day. In just the last two weeks, it’s helped bring down the number of calls delayed from 500 a day to 400.

Detroit police take action

As a result of our reports, the department instituted a slew of new procedures meant to ensure fewer priority one calls take too long to receive a response while also making changes to depatment leadership.

In April, Chief James Craig removed James Fleming as director of the city’s 911 operation. The position is currently vacant and the department is conducting a national search.

Asst. Chief White said the department “holds everyone accountable,” and that under Fleming’s performance “didn’t meet the standards” established by DPD.

Brought in to reassess the daily operations of the city’s 911 operation is Captain Melissa Gardner, who White praised.

“I think one of the things that she brings is just a new set of eyes,” White said. Coming into communications and not being really inundated with past practice, bringing new ideas and really coming to the table and saying: how can we be better?”

Our reports triggering DPD to launch investigations into hundreds of its responses to 911 call. Those probes have led to discipline for 32 employees.

The department is now more aggressively policing itself. Officials noticed that some priority 2 calls—that include assault and battery, threats of suicide and attacks from the mentally ill—sat too long before a car was dispatched. Now, any priority 2 call that sits on the board for 30 minutes will be automatically flagged.

DPD has also started another patrol shift, called an “overlap car,” that’s meant to prevent calls from falling through the cracks during officer shift change. The department audits all calls that take more than 15 minutes for a vehicle to be dispatched.

More recently, DPD has taken steps to ensure that fewer calls to 911 are delayed in being answered. As we first reported in February, some calls to 911 are answered by an automated message—dubbed the “on hold” message by those who’ve heard it—when there aren’t enough call takers to answer them.

As our investigation revealed, about 500 calls each day heard the automated message from January through March of this year. The average wait time was 37 seconds.

More than 6,000 calls were delayed at least a minute. Nearly 1,000 were delayed by more than two minutes.

Until we started asking questions, DPD didn’t know how many calls were hearing the voice message every day. But as a result of our reporting, the department now tracks the number of calls being delayed and the length they’re on hold.

“We built a new system based on the inquiries that you made, to be candid,” Asst. Chief White said.

Now that DPD is aware of when calls stack up the most, they’ve added more call takers during the busiest hours of the day. In just the last two weeks, it’s helped bring down the number of calls delayed from 500 a day to 400.

“I recognize that we have a problem and they are attempting to address those issues,” said Willie Bell, Chair of Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, which oversees DPD.

‘It’s encouraging that you continue to highlight it and bring it forth,” he said. “It’s encouraging that the department is attempting to seriously address these concerns."

Perhaps most encouraging is the affect the changes have had on response times. Since these changes in policies, staffing and leadership were made the department has seen response times fall.

In February, it took—on average—12 minutes and 45 seconds to respond to the most urgent calls for help. Today, it sits at 11 minutes and 44 seconds.

“Sometimes a minute can be the difference in life and death,” White said. “Our numbers continue to go down and reflect that the work we’re doing is working.”


This investigation was reported and produced by Ross Jones. Video reports were edited by Randy Lundquist. Photographers Johnny Sartin, John Ciolino and Andrzej Milosz contributed to this report. Max White edited digital reports. Jodie Heisner is the executive producer of investigations. Contact 7 Investigator Ross Jones at ross.jones@wxyz.com

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