Let’s fix this: Trenton police, public must meet expectations on service calls

The recent incident in which a city couple had to wait 22 minutes for a police response to a situation involving the removal of an intruder from their premises highlights an ongoing problem with the way the public and the police communications center interact.

The problem is a mismatch of expectations between the parties and this leads to misunderstandings, miscommunications and frustrations on either end of the phone.

On Sunday, May 5, at about 10 p.m., an intoxicated individual gained entry to the vestibule of an apartment building on South Broad Street. The building’s owners are residents of one of the units in the building. The wife called 911 to report the situation and seek police assistance while the husband struggled with the intruder and tried to force him back out onto the street.

In the initial call, made via the apartment’s landline to the city’s 911 system, the woman told the call taker that an intruder was in their building. She was instructed to hang up and call the non-emergency police line to report the incident.

During the second call, the caller and the second call taker engaged in a further exchange in an effort to establish whether or not the intruder was in the actual living quarters and what kind of physical altercation was occurring.

The caller remained calm and answered all the questions. The call taker determined that the suspect was not in the living quarters, thus relegating it to a report about a disorderly person.

It was assigned a priority level of five out of seven. The caller was advised that there was no unit available at that moment but as soon as one was available, it would be dispatched to the scene.

The volume of calls for service that night and the lower priority rating meant that the call was “stacked” awaiting a unit to be freed up to handle the call.

Under police protocols, priority five jobs must be responded to in 30 minutes or less. This job was dispatched about 20 minutes after the initial call was made and a unit responded within a minute or two after the job was dispatched.

Had the intruder been in the apartment, the priority would have been higher and a police unit would have been dispatched sooner. Since the call taker ascertained that there was not an imminent physical threat to the occupants of the apartment, the priority was lowered to a five.

This situation was unfortunate, but it highlights a problem that has existed for years between the public and the communications center. Frequent changes in the administration and supervision of the call center have stymied periodic efforts to correct this situation.

This occurrence, along with the one a few weeks ago involving the alleged shooting incident on Laurel Place, provide an opportunity to openly address this situation through information sessions aimed at aligning the expectations of the public with the current realities of the interaction between caller, call taker and responding officer(s).

  1. The public needs reminding about when to call 911 and when to call the non-emergency number. Calling 911 is not always appropriate, and 911 should never be used if calling from a mobile phone. Calls placed via the cellular network will not always go to the nearest emergency communications center resulting in critical time being wasted re-directing the call to the proper agency.
  2. The Trenton police need to settle on a preferred “non-emergency” number to call as this has changed several times over the years from 989-4111 to 989-4170 to 989-4000. The preferred number needs to be disseminated to the community at large. The city also needs to make the necessary improvements to the phone system to allow the 911 call takers to transfer non-emergency calls for service to the appropriate line instead of requesting callers hang up and call back on a separate number.
  3. The system of prioritizing calls for service and the expected wait times for those calls to be answered must be explained. Providing this information can help focus the public consciousness on what to expect when they call for assistance.
  4. The public needs to be better informed on how to place a call for service; how to present information in as orderly a fashion as possible under what can often be stressful circumstances so that the call takers can handle the request as efficiently as possible.*
  5. The staff of the communications center needs to have continual training and performance evaluation to handle calls more effectively and efficiently. This is especially true when it means having to prompt the caller for additional information or clarifications.

It is a really a matter of teaching both sides what the expectations are and how to meet them.

*I know some will say it is impossible to think clearly in an emergency, but familiarizing yourself with certain basic rules for providing clear information is something we all can and should prepare ourselves to do.