The average time it takes a Denver police officer to respond to high priority 911 calls has increased by nearly two minutes this year, and department officials say a decline in the number of officers on the force is making it harder to maintain response rates.
Spokesmen for Denver police said Tuesday that budget constraints have prevented the city from hiring new officers, which has taken a toll on services.
"It's going to get worse before it gets better, but it will eventually get better," said Lt. Matthew Murray, spokesman for Denver Police Chief Robert White, who took control of the department about a year ago.
Murray said White is moving more officers out of desk jobs and into the streets to alleviate the strain. He added that help also will come when new officers start getting hired as early as next year and when the chief finishes a review of police district boundaries.
The department will be able to hire new officers because voters in November agreed to release the city from provisions of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, which will bring in $68 million in new revenue annually to the city.
The department recently released data showing that, on average, it took 15.75 minutes to respond to high priority 911 calls through the first 10 months of this year. In the first 10 months of last year, the average response time was 14.03 minutes, the department data shows.
"We're doing some things to address this, but there is no silver bullet," Murray said.
The average time it took an officer to respond to such 911 calls through all of 2011 was 14.21 minutes. For 2010, the average was 13.49 minutes, and in 2009, 14.38 minutes.
The department released the data after two high-profile incidents involving 911 response by police. Last month, White ordered the internal affairs bureau to investigate a nearly 6 ½ -hour delay between a 911 call reporting a violent domestic dispute and the discovery of a woman's body in her southwest home.
In May, Denver 911 director Carl Simpson fired Juan Jesus Rodriguez, a 911 operator, for failing to follow procedure when he instructed a Sudanese refugee to return to Denver after the refugee reported he was being threatened by a group of Latinos wielding a gun.
The refugee, Jimma Reat, followed the operator's instructions and returned to Denver, where he was killed by someone in the group that had threatened him and his companions.
Simpson was hired as director of 911 to improve performance and drive reforms. A strategic plan he helped develop for 911 replaced former police supervisors in 911 with civilian hires. Training of 911 operators also was overhauled.
City documents also show the strategic plan strived to make 911 operators more efficient, a move that by February 2010 had essentially added the equivalent of 13 employees in 911 without actually having to make any actual hires.
Despite that push by Simpson and others overseeing 911, response rates by police are lagging for priority 0, 1 and 2 calls for service, according to the data the police department released. Those calls are classified as "high priority" by the police department and encompass everything from welfare checks to shootings and assaults.
Police spokesman Sonny Jackson said the data contained some surprises for even department veterans. For instance, the department has logged 12,982 welfare checks through October of this year, far more than the 9,859 welfare checks the department logged for all of 2009.
"That surprised even us," said Jackson, who stressed that such welfare checks aren't always considered a pressing need because they essentially involve checking to make sure someone is OK instead responding to actual news of harm. "We were like, 'Wow.'"
Jackson said that as the chief reviews police operations, there may be a concerted effort to downgrade welfare checks to a lesser category of response so more officers will be available to respond to higher priority issues.
Both Jackson and Murray said the lagging response rates aren't related to a dip in officer-initiated activity.
In 2011, officer-initiated responses dropped far below expected performance following high-profile firings of officers. Police officers said they disagreed with those firings and were reluctant to continue an aggressive response.
Jackson and Murray pointed out that statistics show this year that officer-initiated responses have rebounded to levels higher than those tallied from 2008 through 2011.
They said the police force has declined from 1,462 sworn officer positions at the start of 2011 to 1,388 officers for this month.
White is responding by turning some jobs that previously were done by sworn officers into civilian positions, Murray said. For instance, administrative assistants and fingerprint technicians are scheduled to become civilian jobs.
City budget negotiations also are projected to end with the approval of the hiring of new officers, who must undergo training for nine months before they can work on the streets on their own, Murray and Jackson said.
They said it's not yet known how many new officers will be hired, but they said Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and city council members have discussed hiring as many as 100 new officers.
Murray stressed that the hiring push wouldn't necessarily automatically increase the police force as the department also must contend with the loss of other officers each year due to retirements.
The recent controversies in police 911 have captured the interest of some key city leaders.
Denver Councilwoman Robin Kniech, a member of the council's Health, Safety, Education & Services Committee, the council committee in charge of overseeing police operations, said she would like to have police department officials give a report on 911 operations to that committee.
"I have lots of questions," Kniech said.