The police commissioner's conference room in the Philadelphia Public Services Building. (Erin Blewett for Billy Penn)

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Police response times to 911 calls in Philadelphia vary widely depending on the demographic of the district being served, according to a new review of police spending from the City Controller’s Office, which found areas with more white residents get a much faster emergency response.

This disparity is one of the topline findings of the report, which also reviewed the PPD’s main crime fighting strategy, its growing issues with understaffing and recruitment, incorporation of community feedback, and how data collection is (or isn’t) being used to make smart decisions that bring positive change.

The report also suggested some solutions for progress across a wide range of police operations.

“Many of these challenges are tied to PPD’s allocation of available resources, but that is not to say that more funding is the correct response,” City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart wrote in a letter that opens the 70-page report.

The Philadelphia Police Department budget last fiscal year was $729 million, an increase of 12% since its $650 million budget in fiscal year 2017, the start of the period reviewed in the report.

This report grew out of the controller’s investigation into the response to summer 2020’s widespread civil unrest, and was formally requested by City Council’s Police Reform Working Group.

In a written response, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said she appreciated “the opportunity to participate in the recent special review,” though she didn’t sit for a formal interview for the study. Rhynhart said she was “impressed” with the depth of cooperation from PPD.

As city controller, a position she’s held since 2018, Rhynhart has consistently published reports asking for more police accountability. This one takes on slightly more meaning ahead of her likely run for Philadelphia mayor. She hasn’t formally announced, but has been teasing hard.

Read on for more details on the report’s findings, and some of its suggestions for change.

911 response times average 40 minutes in some neighborhoods

Compared to four other large police districts (NYC, Miami-Dade, Houston, and San Francisco), the report found Philly has the longest response times to high priority events — the term that includes in-progress events, armed individuals, and other emergencies deemed urgent.

How much longer varies widely based on where you live in the city, with average response times more than doubling from district to district.

In the 35th Police District in North Philly, for example, average response times were as high as 40 minutes. In the 5th Police District, further west in Roxborough, average response times were 15 minutes or lower. Whether the call is about a shooting victim or someone hit by a car, those minutes can be the difference between life and death.

Credit: Office of the City Controller

The stark differences generally track with the proportion of white residents. The four police districts with the slowest response times are the four districts where white residents make up fewer than 10% of the population, and Black and Latino residents make up more than 80%.

The volume of police calls varies from district to district, but by controlling for those factors, the report found they were not the determining aspect.

One outlier is Police District 22 in North Philly, which has the quickest response times in the city, likely in part because it has long been an area of specific focus for the force. The department’s use of body cameras began in the 22nd district in 2014, and it’s currently the district with the highest rate of violent crime.

There aren’t enough officers, and it could get worse

Some of the 911 response time lag can be chalked up to understaffing.

Not having enough people on duty — due to injury claims, attrition, or recruitment slowdown — affects a broad range of police operations, the Controller’s Office report found.

As of this summer, of more than 6,500 budgeted positions, only about 90% of them were filled. And if you include officers out on injured on duty (IOD) status, the total active staff position drops to about 5,400.

Only 2 of 5 sworn officers in the department are assigned to patrol, and that’s before taking into account people who are out on injury or vacation.

Split across the PPD’s three main shifts, this results in “an average of about 22 patrol officers assigned to the highest crime district at a particular time, with about 11 patrol officers assigned to the lowest crime districts,” according to the report.

In each district, the total headcount ranges from about 70 to 190 officers.

Unless recruitment and attrition trends in the department change, the report notes, there will be even fewer. “In order to maintain FY 2023 staffing levels through the end of FY 2025, PPD would need to add an average of 466 more recruits per year above the projected recruitment levels,” the review reads.

Discounting 2020 when pandemic lockdowns changed circumstances for everyone, the PPD has averaged around 175 recruits annually over the past half decade.

Are there other ways the department could staff up without needing a budget increase? The controller’s review points to recent reporting by The Inquirer that suggested “numerous” officers are taking advantage of an allowance called the Heart and Lung Act, which allows them to collect their full salary, tax-free, even as some work side hustles. Another recent Inquirer report noted nearly 900 uniformed officers are performing civilian tasks.

Operation Pinpoint ballooned without clear evaluation

Operation Pinpoint has been the department’s primary crime fighting strategy since January 2019, but it hasn’t received a formal, independent evaluation in any way since its rollout, the City Controller’s report notes.

The tactic concentrates policing and enforcement on specific “grids”, essentially targeted areas “pinpointed” because of higher crime rates or escalated community concerns. Today, each police district has at least one pinpoint area. It didn’t start that way.

The plan launched with seven grids. The following year, it expanded to 45 grids — without a solid evaluation of how well it was working.

The department’s decision to “dramatically and rapidly” expand Operation Pinpoint may have “greatly impaired” its ability to effectively carry out the strategy and determine its usefulness, the report concludes.

District captains play a big role in the strategy, as they’re responsible for making plans to reduce crimes in their respective grids. PPD crime analysts provide weekly reports that measure the amount of crime in a given grid, the amount of time officers spend there, and other forms of area-specific intelligence. Notably, the reports don’t measure officer deployment in relation to crime.

Credit: Matt Rourke / AP Photo

Rhynhart’s report cites a 2009 Temple University study on the notable effectiveness of foot patrols, and notes that “it appears that foot patrols are not consistently a primary focus of PPD’s deployment strategies.”

In interviews, district captains gave a variety of reasons for why that might be. Staffing shortages lead to a preference for patrol cars to better respond to 911 calls, and some captains leave foot patrols to newer officers with less experience.

The report suggested that Operation Pinpoint go through a strategic evaluation to find out the range of needed officers in a given area, as it aligns with community feedback and needs.

Data collection and modernization might help

One mainstay Controller Rhynhart’s report cites across multiple sections is the Philly Police Department’s less-than-ideal data collection practices and management. This manifests in many ways, per the report, such as:

  • PPD records on injured officers do not separate officers on IOD status versus officers out under Heart and Lung dictates.
  • Injury records rife with human error. For instance, there were cases provided to the Controller’s Office where the date an officer was listed as back on duty was earlier than the date they were placed on injury.
  • Having no comprehensive data-driven strategy for Operation Pinpoint, the department’s crime fighting plan.
  • Overtime being tracked inconsistently and, in some cases, inaccurately.
  • Failure to use “911 call data strategically to identify patterns or insights” to inform PPD’s overall strategy.
  • Internal personnel data management is maintained across five different sources, including the city’s OnePhilly payment system, PPD’s internal database, a Microsoft Excel file, and even physical index cards.

The data is also handled across a range of institutions, per the Controller’s Office. Information related to Heart and Lung utilization is handled by a third party data management firm reporting to the Office of Risk Management, and 911 call data is handled by Vesta Analytics, a different third party company.

Further, aspects of PPD’s work use outdated technology.

For instance, a “significant amount” of PPD information is printed out and driven between offices — in many cases, delivered by uniformed officers — instead of using electronic communications, according to the report. Based on interviews, there are no cybersecurity reasons for this practice.

Major recommendations

As it relates to the PPD’s spending, the Controller’s Office makes a few key recommendations. The report suggests:

  • That the PPD construct its budget based on the feedback of the communities it serves — on a district-to-district, neighborhood-to-neighborhood level — and arrange its deployment strategies along these lines.
  • That the department conduct ongoing assessment of 911 response times to reduce existing disparities.
  • That the department undertake serious civilianization measures to get more uniformed officers back to formal police work.
  • That PPD works with Risk Management to create a process that can investigate instances of abuse of Heart and Lung usage, and take action against officers.
  • That Operation Pinpoint undergo an independent evaluation leading to a comprehensive data and operational strategy.
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Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...