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City to revamp how police respond to 911 calls

Chicago Police Superintendent Garry F. McCarthy  his office Chicago Police HQ 3510 S. Michigan Avenue Wednesday August 18 2011

Chicago Police Superintendent Garry F. McCarthy in his office at Chicago Police HQ, 3510 S. Michigan Avenue, Wednesday, August 18, 2011 | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 20, 2012 10:58AM

After years of discussion and delay, Chicago is finally ready to usher in a revolutionary change in 911 dispatch to free police officers to respond to the most serious crimes, a top mayoral aide said Thursday.

Gary Schenkel, executive director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, disclosed that Police Supt. Garry McCarthy has drafted a “general order” outlining the “call diversion” plan that will alter a dispatch policy that sends police officers to respond to 70 percent of 911 calls, compared with 30 percent in other major cities.

It won’t be implemented until the public is educated and physical improvements to the 911 center floor are completed, he said.

“The effort is to put police officers on crimes — preferably crimes in progress or to prevent crimes — rather than tying them up with administrative duties,” Schenkel told aldermen during City Council budget hearings.

“The intention is to shift those administrative duties as much as possible to officers on the phone who can take reports and provide a police report number for the individual calling,” Schenkel said. “That’s a very delicate balancing act because, when somebody calls the police, it’s not because they’re happy normally. They’re scared. Their thinking may or may not be real clear. So, we have to be very careful, very explicit, and we have to ensure there is public as well as aldermanic buy-in.”

Ald. Latasha Thomas (17th) pressed Schenkel to describe the kinds of calls that would no longer get an in-person police response.

“If you park your car on the street, somebody breaks in and your laptop you’ve left on the seat is gone, that’s a perfect example,” he said.

“You’re probably not gonna get that laptop back immediately. The offender is gone. There’s no imminent threat to life. And the individual may need a police report number to report to their insurance company.”

Also during Thursday’s hearing, aldermen hammered Schenkel about the perennial problem of 911 center overtime and about a dramatic increase in overtime spending — from $5.6 million last year to more than $7 million this year.

“We all know we get heavy snow. … We are going to have more heat waves. We should be able to narrow that overtime to hundreds of thousands — not millions,” said Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd).

Thomas added, “If you have three years of anomalies, it’s no longer an anomaly.”

Schenkel noted that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposed 2013 budget restores 11 of the 17 dispatcher positions cut last year.

But he said, “It’s not cost-effective to schedule [someone for] an eight-hour shift to cover a two-hour increase in calls. That’s the challenge of emergency management. This March, there were 100,000 more calls than last March. It’s a delicate balancing game.”

Four months ago, McCarthy disclosed that Chicago had quietly embarked on a change in 911 dispatch to restore what he called “beat integrity”: leaving police officers to patrol their assigned beats instead of chasing their tails by running from one 911 call to another.

“Previously, the dispatcher would direct the resources, while the sergeants in the field would basically just be receiving them. [Now], sergeants in the field are in charge of dispatching resources if they don’t like the way OEMC is doing it. They overrule OEMC when they dispatch a beat car to a job that they feel they shouldn’t be dispatching them to,” the superintendent said then.

McCarthy also disclosed that the “clean screen concept” had been abandoned at the 911 center.

“They would dispatch a car from one end of the district to the other end to simply get the job off the screen. That’s the clean screen concept. What we’re now doing is maintaining beat integrity,” he said.

“If a job comes in in a neighboring beat and it’s not an emergency call for service, that job will actually get stacked until that beat is available to handle it.”

McCarthy said then that a more dramatic change was coming soon, when the Chicago Police Department determines “which jobs we’re not gonna respond to” anymore.

“That’s a call that I’m going to make — and there’s going to be some wrankling about that,” he said then.

“[But] we don’t need to respond to calls for service because, ‘My children are fighting over the remote control.’ We don’t need to respond to calls for service because, ‘My son won’t eat his dinner.’ Unfortunately, believe it or not, those are calls we actually respond to today.”

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