First responder response times suffer due to police staff shortage

“If it’s a life-threatening traumatic injury, having to wait for the scene to be secured can lead to a bad outcome.”

South KC Perspective

By John Sharp

Police response times are suffering in KCMO due to staffing shortages which also delay emergency medical care to the victims of violent crime while first responders often are forced to wait a few blocks away for crime scenes to be secured for their own safety.

“It is a common occurrence to have every patrol officer from each division station already dispatched and handling 911 calls.  When this occurs, there are no other officers available city wide while more 911 calls continue to come in,” said Police Department spokesperson Captain Leslie Foreman.

As the public awaits word on whether the $42.3 million stripped from this fiscal year’s already approved Police Department budget will be returned and whether the city will approve funding for an urgently needed new police recruit class, response times may continue to worsen as additional officers retire or resign to take positions in other departments.

According to figures I obtained June 8 from the Department, all six patrol divisions are currently understaffed with sworn officers as shown here:

  • Central Patrol allocated 164, actual 153
  • East Patrol allocated 154, actual 147
  • Metro Patrol allocated 143, actual 132
  • North Patrol allocated 93, actual 83
  • Shoal Creek Patrol allocated 88, actual 76
  • South Patrol allocated 89, actual 86

Cars are routinely dispatched to answer calls in other patrol divisions, Captain Martin Cobbinah, city liaison for the Department, told a recent City Council committee hearing.  This frequently lengthens response times, sometimes significantly when cars are dispatched from distant divisions due to rolling blackouts of available officers.

Major Darren Ivey, commander of the South Patrol Division, said in a recent interview that there are times every day when all on duty officers in his division are already on calls and not available to respond when new calls for service come in.

While he said his minimum staffing is supposed to be six officers and one sergeant at its lowest level, he told a recent meeting of the Southern Communities Coalition his staffing is sometimes down to only four officers.

“This is a true crisis for us,” he said.

While the negative impact long police response times have on delivering emergency medical care to crime victims has been largely overlooked during discussions on police funding and control of the Department, it clearly can be life-threatening. 

Fire Chief Donna Lake said in an interview June 8 that it’s pretty regular for Fire Department first responders and ambulance crews to arrive at the scene of a violent crime before police.  She said crews will stage a block or two away at a safe distance until they are notified by police that the scene is secure or Fire Department dispatchers obtain reliable information that the perpetrator has left.

“If it’s a life-threatening traumatic injury, having to wait for the scene to be secured can lead to a bad outcome,” Lake said.

An ordinance approving the $42.3 million cut in the Department’s budget introduced by Mayor Quinton Lucas and eight City Council members was introduced and passed 9-4 on May 20.  A companion ordinance authorized the city manager to negotiate with the Board of Police Commissioners for the possible restoration of all or part of the funding and the possible addition of $3 million “as necessary” for a new recruit class.

Supporters of the ordinances have said they are a first step in giving city elected officials a real voice in the operations of the Department which is governed by a Board of Police Commissioners which includes the mayor and four local residents appointed by the governor.  The Department was placed under state control in 1939 in an attempt to clean up the rampant corruption of the Pendergast political machine.

Both ordinances were introduced and passed by the Council the same day without being assigned to a committee for a hearing to allow public input as is customary.  The four Northland Council members who voted against them and representatives of the Department and the Police Board all said they were only told about the ordinances a few hours before they were brought up for a vote.

On May 28 the Police Board filed a lawsuit to overturn the Council’s actions.  The suit asked the court to order the return of the $42.3 million and to ban the city from cutting police funding after the Board adopts the Department’s annual budget relying on what the city has appropriated for the Department.  

It also asks the court to prohibit the city from dictating funding priorities for amounts it gives the Department exceeding the 20 percent of its general revenue required by state law. 

Jackson County Circuit Judge Kevin Harrell has ordered the city to continue to pay any expenditures incurred by the Department authorized under its city approved fiscal year 2021-22 budget while awaiting the city’s response to the suit.

John Sharp is a former city councilman, state legislator and reporter who writes a regular column, South KC Perspective, for The Telegraph. 

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