By Miriam Raftery
J. Richmond also contributed to this ECM special report
Records obtained by ECM show longer response times in rural areas than urban communities; new substation won't increase staffing
April 10, 2014 (San Diego’s East County) -- Recently, Potrero resident Tarah Corey called 911 to report that someone in her area had been crying out and screaming for help and to send officers immediately. She was shocked to finally receive a call back from the Sheriff’s department 45 minutes later to check to see if the screaming had stopped, according to posts on the Mountain Empire Community Facebook page. While you would expect a quick response to such a dire and life-threatening situation, she learned the hard way in East County’s backcountry that’s not always the case.
Another rural East County resident who asked that their name not be published, had a similarly jarring experience in late 2013 after calling 911. The resident reported hearing gun shots being fired from a neighbor’s home around 10 p.m. After hearing gunshots for more than an hour, Sheriff’s deputies finally responded and drove to the neighbor’s home to investigate, the resident indicated. The situation escalated, requiring a backup helicopter. After witnesses claimed that over 23 shots had been fired during the course of that evening, a resolution to the firearm standoff finally came around 1 a.m. with the suspect arrested and booked.
Is it common for East County residents to have to wait over an hour for the Sheriff’s department to respond to such dangerous calls? Is there a system in place to designate the importance of calls received, and if so, how long do East County’s back country residents typically have to wait for the Sheriff’s response?
The San Diego Sheriff’s Department designates calls on the basis of priority levels. East County Magazine has obtained public records for response times in rural areas for priority one through priority four calls. Click here to view response times in your community.
A priority one call requires a “life savings response” (e.g., officer needs assistance), whereas a priority two call requires an “expeditious response” (e.g., felonies in progress). Priority three calls require officers to “respond to calls ASAP” (e.g., non-injury accidents), and finally priority four calls are the least dangerous and officers are instructed to “respond to call when clear to do so (e.g., abandon vehicle).”
It would seem that the two 911 distress calls described above should have elicited a priority one response, given that screams for an extended period could indicate a life threatening situation was occurring, and that sounds of gun fire would necessarily indicate a response to an intruder or imminent threat.
Rural residents want to know, why are response times sometimes so slow in our areas, and what can be done about it? Were these anomalies or is this a pattern? Is it possible that the Sheriff’s department merely lacks the resources to sufficiently cover all the unincorporated areas of the East County’s back country? ECM’s investigation set out to find out.
The Sheriff’s Department lists approximately 4,000 employees who are responsible for covering over 4,200 square miles. The Sheriff’s Department operates a total of 19 patrol stations https://www.sdsheriff.net/patrolstations/vista.html in the unincorporated areas of San Diego, with coverage managing from 100-550 square miles a station, excluding contracts with incorporated cities.
The incidents described above occurred within the Campo station’s area of coverage, which has among the slowest responses countywide in the 2011-2013 time-frame.
In fact, the records show that Campo has consistently had slower response times to serious calls than other areas. For example, in 2011, the average response time to a priority one, life-threatening situation call was over 30 minutes in Campo, but just four minutes in Santee, which contracts with the Sheriff for services and has the smallest geographic area to cover. The second worse was not even close--Valley Center (16 and a half minutes) followed by Pine Valley (just under 13 minutes) that year. There were no priority one calls from Campo in 2012 or 2013, though in 2013 Ranchita had a troublingly long 27 minute response time to priority one calls.
For priority two calls, Campo again had the slowest response times in 2011 and 2013 among all stations, and the second worse in 2012 (after Pine Valley). Last year, Campo residents waited an average of over 25 minutes for a response to felonies in progress, followed by Ranchita, Pine Valley and Julian, which all had wait times of over 20 minutes. Campo was also the worst for priority three calls last year, with a 28 minute response time.
There are some brighter spots, mainly in urban areas. For example, priority one response times last year averaged less than a minute in Alpine, and less than five minutes in unincorporated Lemon Grove.
Priority two call response times were lowest last year in the three cities that contract for Sheriff services—Poway, Lemon Grove and Santee as well as Ramona and Santee’s unincorporated portion (all 10 to 12 minutes), while rural areas farther east were generally much longer (14 minutes for Alpine; 22 to 26 minutes for everywhere east of Alpine).
Priority four calls for less urgent matters such as abandoned vehicles were long countywide, ranging from a low of 32 minutes last year in Julian to a high of 62 minutes in unincorporated Lemon Grove. Here, Campo averaged 34 minutes.
Many citizens in the backcountry would no doubt say that response times were unacceptably slow for the most serious offenses.
Interestingly, public safety spending has decreased in the San Diego region while arrests are also going down, two recent SANDAG reports indicate. Countywide, spending per capita on public safety dropped 10 percent from fiscal 2008 to fiscal year 2013 and regionwide there were 1.29 sworn officers per 1,000 residents—much lower than the national average. The Sheriff’s Department saw an 8 percent decrease in staffing in the past five years. During that time arrest rates for juveniles fell 46 percent and adult arrests fell 17 percent according to the report titled Arrests 2012: Law Enforcement Response to Crime in the San Diego Region.
Could the reduction in arrest rates be tied to slower response times—officers arriving after perpetrators have fled due to funding cuts or short staffing?
Asked about the response times in rural areas, Captain Todd Frank had this to say.
“As you can see, most of the response times have increased slightly. The increases are greatest in regards to lower priority calls.” He maintained that longer response times in the unincorporated areas “cannot be attributed to fewer deputy sheriffs being assigned there. The Sheriff has not reduced the number of deputies assigned patrol the unincorporated areas. He considers the deputies in the field answering emergency calls as one of our highest priorities.”
So what does account for the increase?
One factor, according to Captain Todd is that the Sheriff's Department has emphasized safe driving to reduce the chances of traffic collisions in recent years. “As you may know, most line-of-duty deaths in US law enforcement are now related to traffic collisions, something which has touched our own agency recently,” he said in an e-mail to ECM. “We have encouraged our deputies to drive slower and safer. Experience has shown that arriving at lower priority calls 30-60 seconds sooner is not worth the risks to our personnel, or the public, if it means driving more quickly. Being involved in a traffic collision usually means the deputy never arrives at the call to which they are responding; this is obviously counter-productive.”
He stated that the Department has also adopted an “Information Led Policing approach to law enforcement. This means our agency is increasingly offender-based, not event-based. While we still respond to the same calls for service, we have shifted our focus to prolific criminal offenders. We believe this approach is primarily responsible for the reductions in the crime rates in our unincorporated areas, especially in 2013. In other words, we can effectively fight crime without unduly endangering the public or our personnel through imprudent responses to radio calls.”
One problem is the vast territories covered by the Campo station (over 300 square miles) and Pine Valley (over 400 square miles).
A spokesman for Supervisor Dianne Jacob, asked about the slow response times, indicated that Campo now has a substation and that the Sheriff’s Department is building a new $3.3 million substation in Pine Valley to replace a smaller substation, with a ribbon cutting ceremony set for June. ““Replacing an undersized, ‘70s-era substation with a new, bigger facility has got to help in terms of operations," the staffer suggested.
Indeed, the agenda item for Supervisors when the substation was approved stated, "Construction of a new, adequately sized County-owned facility would ensure a permanent Sheriff’s presence in this community and would facilitate efficient operations and coordination with other agencies in an emergency.”
However, Sheriff spokesperson Jan Caldwell later made clear in an e-mail response to ECM that the "permanent presence" does not include additional deputies. “No, there will not be an increase in staffing in Pine Valley," she stated. "The resident deputies live in the community in an effort to reduce response times, however, based on the large geographical area, it will still be a longer response time than in urban areas. The Sheriff's jurisdiction in this county covers more than 4,200 square miles.”
In addition, a new substation in Rancho San Diego also opened earlier this year, shifting law enforcement resources farther east. Supervisors also just approved funding to build a new Sheriff’s station in Lakeside.
But there appear to be no plans on the horizon as yet to alleviate dangerously long response times to life-threatening situations in Campo, Pine Valley and other rural areas in the farthest east areas of East County.
Meanwhile, frustration at slow Sheriff response times in rural areas has led some residents to resort to calling the U.S. Border Patrol for help in life-threatening situations or seek to ward off would-be intruders with other means--such as a sign at the entrance of one rural Boulevard ranch that displays silhouettes of gun-toting horsemen and the warning phrase, “We don’t call 911.”