COLUMBIA — The continued problem of too few patrol officers and too many 911 "butt dials" and misdirected calls are all contributing to some Columbia residents having to wait longer than ever for an officer to show up.
The average wait time in 2016 was more than double that of five years ago: 28 minutes and 41 seconds, up from 12 minutes and 43 seconds in 2011. Ninety-five percent of all calls were answered in two hours and 30 minutes or less in 2016. In 2011, ninety-five percent of calls were answered in one hour and eight minutes or less.
The numbers from 2016 are slightly down from the previous year, when the department fielded 72,812 calls and the average response time was 29 minutes and 50 seconds.
The subject of wait times came up at multiple town hall meetings the Police Department held throughout October. Police explained the reasons for the waits. But ideas about shortening them were in short supply.
Deputy Chief Jill Schlude said 911 hang-ups and accidental dials are one of the top three calls for service.
Spokeswoman Bryana Larimer said people can do their part to prevent accidental dials.
"I understand it can happen," she said. "But maybe use a lock system or something on there to make sure that you're not butt-dialing the police."
Those follow-ups consume time, keeping officers from responding to other calls. That doesn't help when the department is 50 officers short of national officer-to-resident ratios, according to the department's estimates. While Columbia's population has grown rapidly, police staffing has remained mostly flat.
Often, all officers are out responding to calls, which is called "zero status." The department reaches zero status multiple times a day. Callers needing assistance must then wait until a police officer is free.
Fast food 'emergencies'
Residents often call the police when they don't know who else to call, which creates some interesting scanner talk. But the calls are a headache for dispatchers and police.
Like the time someone called 911 about a moldy hamburger bun in their fast food order. The caller wanted the restaurant workers arrested for serving the bun.
Another caller wanted to report finding a hair in a restaurant meal.
"In instances like that, you might call the health department," Larimer said.
Boone County Joint Communications, the agency in charge of dispatching 911 calls to the correct agencies, often tries to direct the misdirected call to the appropriate agency, Deputy Director Joe Piper said. But if the calls are of a "questionable nature" or the caller is specifically asking for a police officer, the agency has no choice but to direct the calls to the Columbia police.
"Joint Communications is a civilian dispatch agency with no police authority to offer legal advice or refuse a call for service," Piper wrote in an email.
However, misdirected calls are given a lower priority, Piper said, and can therefore result in some of the longest wait times.
People also call police after locking themselves out of their car. Used to be, Larimer said, that an officer could open the vehicle, but that policy has changed. Now police will show up and tell you to call a locksmith or even help you call one, but that's the most they can do.
"I would encourage citizens (before dialing 911) to take a step back and to really think, 'Would this be something that the Police Department would respond to?'" Larimer said.
Residents who want police assistance but aren't in an active emergency can call the non-emergency number: 573-442-6131.
Non-active situations include reporting a suspicious vehicle or an abandoned car. Officers will eventually respond to the situation, but emergencies take precedent, Larimer said.
Meanwhile, residents who simply want to report something to the police and don't need a follow up can report it online. The information in the online report will be reviewed and kept in the department's files for future use.
There's no quick fix for the department's response time averages, Larimer said. But hopefully the hiring of four new officers to fill current vacancies will help. Three officers were sworn in Dec. 12 and one more was sworn in Dec. 16.
Shane Sanderson contributed to this report.
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.