Police telephone unit aims to keep patrol officers on street

Amid criticism of a nearly $8 million projected shortfall in their overtime budget, Baltimore police say they have found one solution to troubling staffing shortages: a new unit that handles some 911 calls by phone so patrol officers can concentrate on emergencies.

The Telephone Reporting Unit carries an additional benefit, police say. Officers restricted from street duties by injuries or health problems can use their experience to handle many calls, including those about property damage or stolen vehicles.

"Having officers take reports over the phone enables more officers to stay on the street responding to calls that are in progress," said Lt. Deanna Effland, who oversees the communications section.

Officials say up to 10 percent of responses could eventually come by phone — challenging a long-held assumption: Call 911 and police will show up. The shift can be jarring, as one resident found out recently when he called the Northeastern District police station to report somebody rifling through his car.

Chris Bingel of Hamilton said information he wanted to provide was ignored when his call was forwarded to an officer taking reports over the phone. He said he supports boosting the effectiveness of the city police force. "Unfortunately, as a citizen," he said, "I get people telling me, 'Why are you calling me? Why are you bothering me with this?'"

That officer wasn't part of the new telephone unit, and police pledged to offer better customer service as they roll out the program.

Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts has faced questions recently from the City Council about why — given the soaring overtime costs and rising homicide and shooting rates the nation's eighth-largest agency can't keep more officers on the street.

The department has about 3,000 sworn officers who carry guns, but a wave of retirements and departures has created about 220 vacancies. Earlier this year officials said another 260 sworn positions were empty due to suspensions, military and medical leave, though the agency could not provide more recent data.

Batts said he wants to keep as many officers on patrol as possible, and the agency expects to spend $27.9 million on overtime this year, well over budget and an increase of more than $10 million compared with 2010.

Other law enforcement agencies agree with the Baltimore police strategy, noting that not all reports are emergencies. Agencies such as Baltimore County police have kept patrol officers on their beats and free from obligations that can be handled over the phone and online.

On the fourth floor of Baltimore Police Department's downtown headquarters, officers in the new unit stare at a giant flat-screen television flashing all the dispatch calls coming into 911. If a call is classified as a stolen vehicle, property damage, larceny or other complaint for which police believe an officer on scene is neither necessary nor beneficial, an officer call the resident and takes the report over the phone.

"Hi. You called about the unauthorized use of a vehicle," Officer Angeline Todman told a resident during a recent shift. "Can you tell me what happened?"

Todman, a Southeastern District patrol officer suffering from high blood pressure, is among the officers currently assigned to the unit, which began operating Aug. 12. Previously, officers under medical restrictions — typically called "light duty" — were assigned tasks such as answering phones, making copies and manning the front counters.

Officers cycle in and out of the unit as they return to their normal assignments. Currently, 12 officers are assigned to the unit, which is staffed from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. They respond to reports including lost property, stolen cars, larceny, property destruction and unauthorized use of vehicles.

As calls come in from dispatch, officers in the unit look at the board for those that fall into their jurisdiction and call residents back for more information. Some calls — such as a woman asking for an investigation of a hypodermic needle she found in her alley or another wondering when the neighborhood grocery store opened — do not require reports.

Since its start, the Telephone Reporting Unit has made about 5,000 calls and filled out 2,229 police reports.

Such tasks add up for officers on patrol. On average, police say, it takes officers 48 minutes to fill out a police report. There's no estimate for how long it takes to respond to a call that proves unfounded or does not require a report.

Dispatchers will still send officers to the scenes of ongoing crimes and serious incidents, police say. For other matters, telephone officers typically respond within five minutes.

Often, Effland said, officers listen to residents who want to vent about their neighborhood. Many times, people just want to file a stolen property report for insurance purposes and don't want to wait for an officer to knock on their door.

In the cases of stolen cars, some people are emotional and fearful, or frustrated over being victimized, and a call back doesn't seem reassuring, Effland acknowledged.

"In Baltimore, a lot of people want an officer; they want that interaction," said Maj. Margaret Barillaro, who oversees information services. "If they say, 'I'd rather see an officer,' we say, 'No problem, Mrs. Smith. We'll send an officer over.'"

Bingel said he ran into problems over the phone when he called the Northeastern District. While the person who rifled through his car didn't take anything, Bingel's home security cameras caught the incident — as well as a crew of would-be thieves testing other car doors on the block.

An officer told him there was no crime because nothing was taken from his car, Bingel said, didn't ask for his video evidence and took an incident report. "I would have wanted to see something more proactive," he said.

After Bingel complained to The Baltimore Sun, a major called him to apologize and review the recordings.

"This was a case of a light duty officer trying to help out with backed up calls and this one slipped through the cracks," Baltimore police spokesman Lt. Eric Kowalczyk said in an email. "They are working to rectify it as we speak."

Effland said that her unit wasn't responsible for that call and that her officers send patrol officers to review any suspected evidence "100 percent of the time."

Police say that Bingel's experience is an anomaly and that they're working to make sure other residents don't have a similar experience. Besides, officials say, most people are getting quicker service; patrol officers can take hours to arrive for a nonemergency call.

Police are still working out other bugs of the new unit. For example, they removed identity theft within the first three weeks from the Telephone Reporting Unit's responsibilities because of the complexity involved in verifying someone's identity and to make sure a criminal wasn't making a false report. The unit also doesn't take reports of stolen or misplaced medication because of the prevalence of prescription fraud.

The origins of the Telephone Reporting Unit trace back to at least the 1990s, when officers were handling similar duties until their responsibilities were taken over by Baltimore's 311 system, which still handles service calls and some property crimes involving damage or losses under $1,000. An online police reporting system, Coplogic, expanded on those services in June.

Police reported last month that 311 operators rarely take reports, but instead dispatch a patrol officer. According to a recent police document, the new Telephone Reporting Unit wrote more reports in a month than 311 operators had written all year.

Batts has told his commanders he'd like to divert as many as 100,000 police calls a year to the Telephone Reporting Unit — about 10 percent of the total calls city police field.

Effland said police are exploring ways to expand the unit, such as staffing it with retirees who have expressed interest in resuming light police duties.

Many other agencies operate telephone reporting units, including police in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. The Baltimore County Police Department's Telephone Reporting Unit and its Online Crime Reporting system handle lower-priority calls "so that they do not need to be processed by patrol officers," agency spokeswoman Elise Armacost said.

"These are lower-priority calls where there is no evidence and no suspects and the goal is to record officially that an offense occurred," said Armacost. The county will always send over a patrol officer if a resident prefers to speak with an officer in person, she added.

The county unit operates 16 hours a day on weekdays and is staffed with officers who are restricted from doing their normal duties, Armacost said.

The Louisville, Ky., police have had a telephone reporting unit since 2005, and merged it with a telephone crime tip unit three years ago.

Susan Bowling, supervisor for the Louisville Metropolitan Police Department Service Center, said 14 people and one supervisor staff the unit around the clock. Civilian employees — not sworn officers — staff the unit because light-duty officers come and go and would need to be trained each time they came onboard.

The Baltimore Police Department's strategic plan calls for the agency to consider staffing an expanded Telephone Reporting Unit, which would also handle noise and traffic complaints, with civilian workers, cadets and light-duty officers who would be assigned for a minimum of six months to keep staffing consistent.

The Louisville unit operates 24 hours a day and took more than 74,000 calls in 2012, writing 11,488 incident reports and 3,500 supplemental reports.

"Our goal is to provide a service to our citizens that is safe and convenient to them," Bowling said. "But we're also providing a service to our officers. We can handle nonviolent reporting of crimes to free them up to handle crimes of higher priority."

Bowling said one way the unit has gained the public's trust is by aggressively marketing the designated phone line for the unit. "All of our community knows it," she said. "It's on the news constantly."

Effland and Barillaro want the same community confidence and hope it is earned over time.

"Some people will say, 'I don't trust the system. I haven't heard of you,'" Effland said. "And a supervisor gets on the phone and says you're getting the same level of service."

Baltimore Sun staff reporters Yvonne Wenger and Justin Fenton contributed to this article.



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