A race against time: Flint police working to improve response times

With limited manpower, the Flint Police Department manages to cut response times for priority one calls
Published: May. 3, 2021 at 11:57 PM EDT
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FLINT, Mich. (WJRT) - The Flint Police Department has its hands full.

Despite being ranked among the nation’s worst when it comes to violent crime, the department is simply underfunded and understaffed.

Ten years ago, ABC12 rode along with officers after manpower was cut in half and saw first hand that it would often take over an hour for officers to respond to some of the city’s most urgent calls for help. But, the department, like the gritty city it protects, is resilient.

Flint police response times, measured from the first call to the arrival of the first police car, have dropped significantly. And officers are fighting everyday to keep it that way.

When flames broke out at a senior living complex in downtown Flint, the first police officer arrived in one minute and 19 seconds. Police Chief Terence Green said that quick response time shows just how important it is for officers to have unobligated time.

That emergency call helped save lives.

It was just one of about 300 calls for help Flint police officers receive each and every day. That’s more than 100,000 a year, in a city where the need for police far outnumbers the men and women on duty.

“It’s a trend,” Green said. “Staffing levels across the U.S. aren’t the same as they were 15 years ago. So with a city this size and the crime rate, the number of officers we have currently -- they don’t complain. They are doing more with less.”

Even when manpower is stretching Flint’s blue line thinner than before, police are doing the unthinkable. The department is dramatically reducing the amount of time from that call for help and the moment an officer arrives.

A decade ago, when so many patrol officers were cut, residents would often wait more than an hour even for priority one calls. That means there’s a weapon involved or someone’s life is in danger.

Even in 2015, the first year Flint joined Genesee County 911, dispatch records show the city’s average response time for the most urgent calls was 1 hour 19 minutes. By 2016, that was cut to less than an hour at 52 minutes.

Flint police response times would go down to 40 minutes by 2017, 30 minutes by 2018 and officers now have maintained an average of under a half hour for the past four years.

“I’m grateful for the improvement but there is still a lot of work to be done. 28 minutes is still long and we are working to improve that on a daily basis”

Flint Police Chief Terence Green

A lot has changed since Officer James Wheeler joined the Flint Police Department nearly 24 years ago. Back then, 357 officers were assigned to serve and protect the citizens of flint.

“It used to be when I went to roll call I couldn’t find a seat,” he said. “Now, sometimes there are just a few of us there. But again, we do what we have to do to make it happen with what we have.”

Like so many members of the department, Wheeler is from the Flint area and believes in making a difference. But that is tougher than ever before.

So many jobs, people and tax dollars have left Flint over the years that the police force has been cut to 125 officers with only 90 patrolling the streets. That’s seven to 10 officers on the road per shift, protecting and serving with less than half the number of officers recommended for Flint’s population and crime rate.

Mayor Sheldon Neeley said Flint doesn’t have that luxury.

“Many communities populate their police department based on the population that they have to serve. When we don’t have a budget where we can actually fulfill all those obligations, we have to have supporting subordinate agencies come in and support us,” he said.

Nearly 50 members of Michigan State Police are assigned to help Flint, along with more back up from the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office, out-county agencies and police from nearby college campuses.

The department also created a telephone response unit, where volunteers take lower priority calls. The effort is designed to get officers on the street to the most urgent calls faster.

“We had to prioritize as far as what we are going to respond to quickly in a timely matter and those are in progress calls,” Green said.

But operating with such a lean force most -- if not all -- officers on duty are sent when there’s a shooting, stabbing or serious accident. On March 17, when two men were shot in the parking lot of a Dollar General in Flint, nine Flint police officers responded to two separate scenes, leaving just three cars for all the other calls in the city.

Last July, when police attempted to shut down a massive pop up party in Flint, hundreds of gunshots rang out. Six people where shot. Flint had extra police officers on hand, but it was all hands on deck and they needed back up.

In April, Dusty Sawgle was attacked while walking home from the store with her daughter. Minutes after a man came at her with a knife, she called 911.

“Terrifying,” she said. “He had a knife in his hand and I was trying to hold that back so he couldn’t stab me. Trying to not let him choke me.”

More than two hours passed and when she called back, the dispatcher told her they were trying to get through the calls.

The crime wasn’t in progress, so the call wasn’t the department’s first priority. But that did little to comfort Sawgle as she was waiting for Flint police to answer her call for help.

“They got there almost three hours later and looked exhausted,” she said. “I see both sides. Residents shouldn’t have to wait that long when there is violent crime. When there is 68 calls and five police officers, they need more cops on duty.”

Green agrees and he’d love to hire many more offices.

“More police officers is better I’ll take 100 more police officers. But is that feasible? No,” Green said. “As far as what our staffing levels are currently, it is a challenge once we have a major incident.”

Wheeler tries to take it all in stride and keep a positive attitude.

“People can be a little frustrated, but I assure them I did the best I could,” he said. “I know staying positive can be difficult. That’s what I tell myself every time I put my uniform on. This is a good day to have a good day and I can’t allow anyone to be in control of my smile and my happiness.”

Wheeler patrols downtown Flint and having more beat cops like him is what Green sees as the future of the police department.

Green hopes to assign more officers to specific neighborhoods, where they are recognized and trusted to not only respond but also help prevent many crimes from ever happening.

“The men and women here are working very hard,” Green said. “We are improving every day and the future is bright for this department.”

For those concerned about their staffing, Green said the department is hiring officers weekly to fill vacant positions. But another way he says the public can help them increase their staff is by voting yes on the public safety millage Tuesday.

Chief Green said it’s just a renewal, so Flint taxpayers aren’t asked to pay any more. But if it doesn’t pass, the department could lose as many as 18 officers.

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