Police response time, gun control, and the end of civilization

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It’s a meme* Since the police will not arrive at your home to protect you from intruders, you must arm yourself with guns. Efforts by commie libruls to restrict gun ownership are tantamount to going from farm to farm and shooting all the babies in the head because gun control takes away the ability of hard working farm families to protect themselves from daily threats of armed intruders, who have probably gone out to the country side from their rat infested urban lairs to prey on the innocent. Central to this meme is the idea that the police a) won’t arrive at your home for a very long time after you’ve called them and b) the police are not even required to go to your home if you call them. (I’ll deal with the first, but not second of these here.) The outcome of the ‘logic’ that uses this meme is that we must heavily arm ourselves pretty much no matter where we live. The meme is fed by occasional reports of very long response times by police, such as this one recently discussed here.

I am not going to make a complex argument or present piles of data. Rather, I’m just going to show you what a couple of minutes of google searching got me. I asked the question, “how long are response times” by police in emergency situations. The answer is: In urban areas with well funded police forces and an upper SES population, under five minutes. In more rural areas that are still affluent between five and 15 minutes. In urban areas that are less affluent, about 15 minutes but as low as 8 minutes, and in rural areas that are not high SES, I’m not sure for police response times but for ambulance response times, just under 20 minutes. These numbers are sometimes averages, sometimes quartiles or some other statistic, representing 80 or 90% of the calls.

In the case discussed earlier (see link above as well as this story) the police response was 21 minutes, and the site of the emergency (a knife-wielding intruder who was eventually killed by the woman who lived in the home being invaded) was less than 10 miles from the town police department, and about 20 miles or so from the Oklahoma City Police. I assume that State Trooper and Sheriff patrols were less than 20, probably less than 10 minutes away. The reason for a 20 minute plus response time in this case is unclear, and it is not addressed in any of the reporting that I’ve seen. (I’m asking around among the reporters who covered this to see if it is a question that has been brought up.)

Response times need to be improved, but there is no reason to assume that most people live in unprotected areas where the police will always arrive far too late to do any good. There are reports here and there of response times getting longer, but if you hear that more often than the alternatives of response times not changing or improving, please consider that this may be a reporting bias. In Minneapolis, high priority calls were responded to on average (I’m not sure how the average is calculated) in 8 minutes in 2003 and 8 minutes in 2012. During the interim, response times went up, then down again.

Now, here’s an interesting fact for you, which I’m pretty sure is true. As I look through response time data, every time I can see a comparison between fire and police, the fire departments beat the pants off the cops. In the same period I just mentioned for Minneapolis, between 80 and 90 percent of the time the fire department arrived at their calls in less than 5 minutes. The fire department is quicker than the police. That means the police can be quicker than they are, right?



*ADDED: I’ve already been told that I’ve created a straw man by noting that the “response time is long, arm yourselves” meme. I didn’t bother documenting that this meme exists because it is so obvious and ubiquitous, but since I’m being called out on it, here is the result of a a couple of minutes of googling and linking:

GAMBLING WITH YOUR LIFE: Is 911 an acceptable option?
Do police stop crime?
The Second Amendment in Action
For those who already have guns but want more straw men in their lives.
And so on and so forth.

Minneapolis Police Response Time
Minneapolis Fire Response Time
Albermale County, Virginia (Affluent-ish suburb/rural) 10-14 minutes
Milwaukee: Urban, underfunded, times have been getting longer, ranging from 13 minutes to 30 minute, average about 18 minutes.
Some other data from around the country.
Orange County, California (the 1% live here): response times near 3 1/2 minutes up to 7 1/2 minutes.

See also this funny story about how to decrease response time

… and this story about an incident at my place.

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In Search of Sungudogo by Greg Laden, now in Kindle or Paperback
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34 thoughts on “Police response time, gun control, and the end of civilization

  1. Hmmm… I know of a recent domestic violence case with a known violent psychotic where the police response time was over three hours. I know because I called. I think the key points you’ve only mentioned is that response time IS related to SES. I’d also guess that most guns aren’t in the hands of the urban upper crust, and that there is some validity to the claim of gun owners that the police won’t get to them in time.

    On the other hand, I’d like to see some statistics on armed robbery numbers and locations compared to gun ownership. I suppose gun owners will say that there aren’t as many robbers because they’ve got guns, but unless they have a sign on their front porch, I’d guess that there are far, far more people carrying guns around than who will ever need them.

    And that those people who carry guns are more likely to get into gun-related trouble than to legitimately defend themselves.

  2. The fire department is quicker than the police. That means the police can be quicker than they are, right?

    I don’t know much about this, but isn’t it the case that there are far more fire stations than police stations, and that the motivation for this is to reduce fire-fighter response time?

    In this case, it seems that the way to reduce police response times would be to build more police stations. (Or maybe they could just assign a couple cops to bunk with the fire-fighters . . . )

  3. There are more fire departments than police stations, but the fire vehicles sit in the fire stations and the cops are spread around, and the fire fighters are playing card upstairs or eating lunch while the cops are sitting in their cars driving around, so the opposite effect should be true … the cops should get there first on average … if both have similar demands.

  4. Twenty minutes is a pretty long time for a violent confrontation.

    FWIW, where I live (Hawaii) the response time is more like 45 minutes to an hour, if you’re lucky. That’s despite the fact that there’s a police substation 10 minutes away. Unless you’re calling to complain about a census worker trying to give you a form, in which case they’ll be out in a flash to arrest the census worker.

  5. Response times can be long, or they can be short. This is something that you have no control over. If this is the only thing ensuring the safety of you and your loved ones, then that safety is completely out of your control. Personally I find this unacceptable.

  6. The fact that fire service vehicles are at their depot means that a vehicle will be available immediately; with police vehicles actively patrolling there would likely be a lead time in determining which is in the best position to respond (which is not necessarily the one closest at the time).

  7. Collectively we can do things to change average response times (though in Western NY police are being let go due to budget constraints). Individually we cannot. The response time will either be long or short, falling somewhere on the distribution. I am not willing to play that kind of dice with my loved ones.

  8. Didaktylos: Can you document that the police have a conversation about which vehicle needs to go to a scene where there is an armed assailant breaking into a home with woman and her baby in it?

    Twp11: What is a collective?

  9. I think that’s a great point. The odds are exceptionally low of ever experiencing a hostle event. As such I would be loath to pass judgment on someone who would decide against gun ownership. As an avid outdoorsman and hunter, firearms are a part of my life as well as my community and familly culture. I would not debate that statistically they put me at a greater risk rather than less (which I must admit is certainly were my dice analogy breaks down). But it is not just about home defense fantasies. Some of my most cherished memories include hunting with close family members. Such activity necessitates gun ownership. Once one decides (for whatever reason) to own a firearm there are a suddenly numerous other issues to be addressed. One of those includes home defense.

  10. Twp11: The problem is that this is not an argument about gun ownership. The argument is constantly being made that restrictions of any kind on gun ownership put people at risk because the police won’t get to your home in time. The evidence, however, suggests that there is an inflation of average response times, an inflation of that as a problem, by NRA type apologists, and that the risks and benefits of gun ownership vis-a-vis use for defense are not what most “gun nuts” want everyone else to believe.

    In addition is the other issue of what to do about police response times in serious priority emergencies the fact that this case happen in OK without anyone in the press even mentioning it suggests to me that either the press in OK is on board with the response time argument, or they are simply doing a bad job of reporting.

    We need to reduce response times, and we need to make gun ownership safer.

    And there is yet another issue which has not been mentioned at all. This is how to make your home safe, other than simply arming yourself and finding a nice comfortable chair with a view of your front door for the best shot. Most people can do better than the do.

  11. I think your comments about the NRA types are mostly correct. This becomes a political issue at which point reason and data are the first things thrown out the window. Hysterics rule. I am a firearm owner, both long guns and pistols. I am an advocate of gun rights. But I cannot argue that there should be real restrictions placed upon that privilege/right. Too many irresponsible individuals are extended that privilege/right. (I’m dancing around the “rights” aspect of the issue).

    Regarding response times, that’s a tough one. Here state mandates are killing the local government. In my county all part time police are being let go as of the beginning of of 2012. We are being told response times will only increase. Am am active in trying to push for fiscal reform at the state level. But it’s a long row to hoe. No see little chance of it getting better anytime soon,, and fear that it is a fact we will have to live it with for the foreseeable future. It does everyone a disservice.

    Regarding home defense, there are many things that should be done if someone is really serious about that issue, long before a firearm is even considered. It is absolutely not the end all in household safety, and per Stephanie, can often times can be the exact opposite. That being said, is it inconsistent for me to say that I can see no reason that an appropriately licensed and trained individual should not see it as a part of home security?

    1. As individuals, we can influence the collective.

      I was all set to directly contact the mayor of my largest big city to find out what he was doing about shortening response times, but in the process I discovered he’d already been busy doing that. So I’ll go encourage him. Meanwhile, anyone who complains about response time but does not make contact, write a letter, or something, is being an ineffective individual and not engaging in moving the collective in the right direction.

      Of course there are probably those who wish to see longer response times in the hopes that they get to eventually kill someone trying to break into their house!

  12. I would like to know whether the average gun owner thinks about some of the policies endorsed (I’d say inflicted upon us) by the NRA.

    For example, must people on the terrorist watch list be allowed guns? Would bullet limits be antithetical to a free society? Does the second amendment require that concealed weapons be allowed at all times and in all places (including bars and university campuses)?

    And how do the answers to these questions correlate with believing that you’d better have a gun in the house because no one is coming to save you?

    As a non-gun owner, I have my own opinions, but I’m ready to hear what others have to say.

  13. The Idea of somone desiring to see increased response times for that reason is simply whacked. Which means you are probably correct.

  14. kathyorlinsky – probably not. I do, which is why, although I am pro-second amendment, I am not an NRA member. This way I can support those aspects of the NRA I agree with and not support those I don’t. For instance, I don’t like concealed carry – I would prefer open carry laws. A weapon cannot be a disincentive to crime if it isn’t visible.

  15. Greg, in response to #5, it is true that the police tend to be out and about, but they are also doing something while they are away from the station. If a call comes in, it becomes a judgement call on whether they finish what they are doing before heading out to the call (and they get plenty of questionable calls, so they aren’t necessarily going to jump at every call that cries “Wolf”).

    The fire department is sitting at the ready most of the time…so the moment they get a call, they immediately head out (since they weren’t really doing anything else anyways). Even it is a false alarm, they get to go out (which is probably more fun than cards).

  16. unbound, yes and no. First, not all cops are doing something all the time. OFten they are doing nothing. The distribution of incidents is probably a poison distribution, which would mean that there would be times when all the cops are busy juggling multiple things but other times when there is not much to do.

    But yes, that is a difference between cops and fire, and by the way, most fire calls are attended to by cops, so the number of calls for cops is the number of calls for fires plus some other (probably large) number.

    But it is still a matter of demand and resources. If the cops response time is too long, add cops. We already know that removing cops increases response times.

    Or, reduce crime! That would work too!.

    THis whole problem has already been addressed in another way, which is to prioritize calls into two or more categories. And it is quite possible for a cop to leave one scene and rush to another in an emergency.

    I once avoided a minor ticket because somebody started shooting people in Union Square, Somerville. The cop got the call and took off without even saying good bye. (It was the incident referenced here – http://goo.gl/HrpC6 – search for “dragged by a car”)

  17. Which police authority ultimately responded? The mother actually talked to two different 911 operators, which makes me wonder if the local police were already on other calls or not working at that particular time (it is not a big department-21 full-time and reserve officers for a town of over 7,000).

    If it was the sheriff’s department that answered I’m not quite ready to jump to the assumption they were as close as 10 minutes away. There are 13 towns and over a 1,000 square miles to patrol. Plus, even if there were one within that range that could answer in less than 10 minutes, there is nothing to say that unit wasn’t on another call (of course, unless more information comes out or the Blanchard police answer journalists questions, there is nothing to say they were, either). I don’t believe the comparison between fire departments and police department response times is a valid one. Apples and oranges as they have completely different duties and responsibilities.

    As far as being close to Oklahoma City, it doesn’t have jurisdiction in Grady County (it is not one of the three counties that Oklahoma City touches). A 911 call wouldn’t go there.

    I also wonder if the question of why it took so long has come up, and if you find out, please post it. I suspect it might, as the CNN report states that the Blanchard police department is not returning calls. That does make it sound like they’re ducking something, which I suspect is the purpose of including that in the first place.

  18. I see someone already beat me to that particular point. As far as adding cops goes, that would require a tax increase, wouldn’t it? Not that an increase in taxes for increased police response bothers me all that much, but is that a politically feasible reality with all the “I’m being taxed to death” crowd?

    Plus, if cops are often doing nothing then how would a political leader justify adding police? “Folks, I know crime is down nationwide, but I need more of your money to make sure that what happens in Oklahoma, which might be an outlier when it comes to response times, doesn’t happen here.”

  19. Greg, I do have to disagree with you a bit. Having a brother-in-law that is a captain of a local police department, his officers are actually doing something most of the time…in fact, my brother-in-laws most common complaint is figuring out how to give his police officers reasonable breaks. Perhaps this isn’t the case in all areas, but it is certainly very different than the wait and bolt requirements of the fire department (my nephew is a fire fighter in the busiest station in his city, so I’m aware of what he has to deal with as well).

    Keep in mind my comment regarding crying “Wolf”. A police officer sitting at a speed trap isn’t going to jump at every call…hence the judgement call aspect of their response. I’ve been in a police car when calls have come in and the officer stayed on his patrol because the call that came in (it wasn’t directed at a specific officer / car) didn’t seem to any more important than potentially snagging a reckless driver. And I would call your example a bit of a strawman argument (of course a police officer is going to dump a minor traffic ticket in favor of something serious).

    With the various cuts across state and local forces (since raising taxes to pay for such things is a strict no-no), police departments get hit too. Being short a few fire fighters rarely has any impact to their response times, but being short a few police officers that are always out and about definitely has an impact on response time…and has already (and will continue to) increased the odds that you are asking the police officers to drop one emergency situation in favor of a different emergency situation.

    Ultimately, I do think the cuts of local and state government funds is the largest culprit in the described problem. That is the unfortunate problem with your (correct) solution of adding police officers.

  20. An additional problem with adding police officers is that it very expensive to put them through the Academy and provide their equipment. An additional officer also means uniforms, body armor, weapons, laptop, police car, radio, in-car equipment and insurance. It not like the old days where all that was necessary was a uniform and a nightstick and start walking the streets.

  21. unbound: Your BIL’s department is underfunded and the people of his community have let him down, I’ll bet, by demanding that they don’t pay taxes!

    We are not in disagreement about how busy police may be on a given force. But I am saying that this is something that can be adjusted. I have not yet drunk the Kool-Aid that nothing can change when it comes to essential services because no-tax policies have become permanent and fundamental to our way of life.

    We pay for our public education via referenda, we pay too little for police protection and have mayhem in certain places and times. In some cases, the fire departments have been underfunded and homes have burned down.

    I agree that it is state and local tax shortfalls that are the main problem.

  22. I can’t help wondering if the assumption is being made that gun ownership confers a stragegic advantage on the homeowner. Perhaps it does if:
    1. The homeowner has training,
    2. The intruder does not surprise the homeowner where the gun is not accessible,
    3. The intruder is not similarly armed, or if he is,
    4. The homeowner, Han Solo style, shoots first.

    Start with the total number of cases where the homeowner must confront an intruder. Subtract the instances where the ordinary-person homeowner gets the “drop” on the intruder, who is likely more experienced at violence than the homeowner. Compare the remaining number to cases where homeowners harm themselves or a loved one is harmed by the gun for whatever reason. The difference between those two figures would be a better basis of discussion.

  23. First you post this and then we get this :


    where an incident that you’d think would be a priority call takes wa-aay too long to get attended to. Hmmm ..

    Central to this meme is the idea that the police a) won’t arrive at your home for a very long time after you’ve called them and b) the police are not even required to go to your home if you call them. (I’ll deal with the first, but not second of these here.)

    To the second of those : What the .. !

    Is that *really* the case? Because it isn’t what I’d have thought for sure. I’d have expected that if you call them asking for police help to prevent or report a crime then the police were pretty much legally as well as ethically obliged to come to your aid as their job description.

    Is that not so?

    (Okay if they have other higher priorities it may take a while but at some stage, surely?)

    I hope you do go on to address that issue later in aanother post soon. Please?

  24. Headshaking foreigner voicing an opinion:

    Get your police funded.
    Get it re-organized
    Reading all the comments about “I need to protect my loved ones”, I doubt that unless you live in a very bad part of town, it really is that bad.
    I’m a part-time single mum, meaning that I spend 5 out of 7 nights alone at home with my children. Most of the time, I don’t even lock my door and I’m not living in the best part of town.
    I’m not afraid. I’m not taking risks with the lives of my children. I know that driving them to their grandma is indeed riskier than leaving the door unlocked.

  25. A few years ago there had been two failed attempts to steal my car stereo. Yes I have a hood-thumper with connectors for a sub-woofer. The first attempt failed when the thief threaded tree limb cutting wire around the hood latch and promptly cut his hands open, bleeding all over my hood and bumper. At first I worried that I had somehow gotten blackout drunk and gone for a drive and killed someone, but no my bottle of Evan Williams was still pretty full. Then I noticed the blood on the sidewalk and noticed the wire. Called police and said I needed to file a theft report. Response time, one hour.

    Second attempt was two months later. Broke out the grill slats, no blood and no wire. Filed a second report. Response time, one hour and ten minutes. Ordered a shamboks online as it is the weapon that causes the most amount of pain with the lowest risk of killing or crippling. Camped out on the futon in the front room just five feet away from the cars. First with my sword, then with my shamboks which arrived two days later.

    The next day I hear glass breaking and peek through the blinds and see a dude set a gar two cars over from mine on fire. I keep my lights off and call 911 to report an arson. Leave the lights off and watch car burn, for a few minutes. I get a call from an arson detective seven minutes later. I tell him what I saw and advise him that I will not talk to any police who show up on scene, but that I will gladly talk to him in person. I did not want to be seen talking to the police anymore than anyone else was. As the fire burned the car’s lights and horn came on. About a minute later a tire blew out. I felt it was safe to turn the lights on in my apartment at that point.

    One patrol car, response time 11 minutes, and two fire trucks, response time 12 min, showed up. Arson team showed up 17 minutes from my call and videotaped the fire being put out. The arson team and one of the regular cops knocked on my door. I said: “You can write in your report that I called 911 when I heard the horn honking and woke up to see the fire. That’s a lie, but you can talk to detective M at Arson to get the truth. I do not want it to seem like I know more than anyone else, so please leave me alone.” They scribbled in their notepads and left. Nothing ever came of the investigation. Arsonist skipped town.

    Still if it had been my car being broken into, it woul;d have been shamboks first and 911 later. You do have to say the response time was very good.

    Interestingly, there are more regulations on knives and other edged weapons than there are on guns. There’s no way I could get away with openly carrying a sword of a shamboks in Texas, but I could get a permit to pack a Glock if I wanted to. Seems kind of weird. Guns OK, but a Bowie knife outside your home is a misdemeanor. Don’t we remember the Alamo?

  26. I am an NRA member and have my concealed carry permit for my state which is also recognized in Oklahoma, though I do not live there. I have a problem with government infringing on my Constitutional Right to bear arms. It is not about hunting, though I do hunt, it not about being in the outdoors though I do fly fish in some remote places where we are not on the top of the food chain. In the outdoors I do sometimes open care but not often. Again it is for protection. I have only pulled my gun once in the outdoors and that was because a mountain lion was saying hello in a very loud voice. I quick left the area, never fired a shot. The Second Amendment is about protecting the people of this country, not the politicians. I don’t think our founders would recognize the country they founded with a government that controls and taxes us into servitude.
    Should we only have the privilege of free speech if we don’t offend someone with what we say? And should we limit it to just speech only, not broadcasting, print, drawing, art or TV? Just speech without amplification?
    I do not like the idea of open carry. Why let the bad guy or girl know you are carrying. I do carry a pistol most of the time and have thought long and hard about when I would use it. Only if I or my loved ones were in imminent life threatening danger at the hands of some criminal would I use my weapon. I am not John Wayne or a police officer. Let’s say I am in a restaurant and someone comes in to rob it. I would not intervene. I carry for my protection and my loved ones protection. Funny how most of the celebrity types have paid body guard who are armed to the teeth. The mayor of NY has a security detail and the former mayor of Chicago has a security detail even after he left office.
    As for police it seems to me that most cops spend their time writing traffic tickets. Hiring more cops who get to retire after 20 years or at age 50 at some crazy pension level has broke the budgets or many towns and cities. Don’t you love it when they retire and then go to work for a security firm or the feds? I wish someone would figure out how it took the cops twenty minutes to response to the event mentioned in the story. I estimate there were at least 3 cops on duty in Blanchard that night. There web site says they have 21 full or part-time officers. Something doesn’t add up.

    Just look at what has happened in Great Britain. You cannot even protect yourself or your family or your home. You are right most of us who own and legally carry with thank God never ever have to pull them or use them. I try to avoid any confrontation or areas that may be questionable. But as they say bad things happen to good people in nice places. I like to be prepared. Just in case Sierra Hotel.

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