How do police spend their time?

Evanston police appear to deal with a similar share of calls for potentially violent incidents as officers in 10 cities included in a New York Times study.

The Times report, published Friday, indicated that serious violent crimes made up around one percent of all calls for service so far this year in 10 cities that make such data available publicly online, ranging from Baltimore, Maryland, to Tucson, Arizona.

Calls for incidents that could fit within the FBI Uniform Crime Report definition of violent crime -- homicide, robbery, rape and aggravated assault -- ranged from 0.5% in Montgomery County, Maryland, to 1.8% in Phoenix, Arizona, among the cities included in the Times report.

Evanston has a similar online database, and an Evanston Now analysis of the data for this year indicates that 1.3% of the calls dispatched here could potentially have involved an FBI-defined violent crime.

(It should be noted that the dispatch codes reflect only what an incident could be -- not what it necessarily turned out to be. For example a "death investigation" could involve a homicide, but most often turns out to be an unattended natural death. And a "hold up panic alarm" call frequently turns out to be a false alarm.)

In Evanston about 4% of calls fall into categories that might fit the FBI's definition of major property crimes -- including burglary, theft, motor vehicle theft and arson. The Times report did not provide similar data for the cities it studied.

The dispatch codes show that Evanston police are most frequently assigned to what's called "directed area patrol," accounting for nearly 37% of all assignments.

Traffic stops are nearly 11%, premise checks and well being checks combined account for more than 8% of calls and nuisiance complaints, disturbances, parking complaints and traffic accidents are each around 2 percent of calls.

Evanston and most of the cities included in the New York Times report don't provide sufficient data to determine how much time police spend on different assignments.

As the Times puts it, "responding to a murder scene takes far longer than handling a burglar alarm, so the number of episodes does not, by itself, indicate how much time an agency spends responding to violent crime."

For the three agencies that reported enough information for the paper to be able to estimate how much time police spent on different types of incidents, the paper reported that time spent on violent crime appeared to amount to about 4 percent of police work hours in each city.

Information on how much time police spend responding to different types of calls "could be relevant," the Times says, to conversations about "unbundling" police services and assigning some of their duties and funding to other kinds of workers to handle more social-service oriented functions.

On the other hand, cities keep firefighters on duty all the time, even though house fires occur only occasionally, and then assign them to also work as paramedics responding to ambulance calls, so that there will be enough firefighters available to respond when a fire does break out.

So another reponse to the concerns could be to better prepare police to handle their more social-service-oriented calls.

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