How do cops spend their time? As Denver debates police funding, here’s a look behind the numbers
During the first half of 2020, Denver police officers responded to hundreds of thousands of calls: Officers helped suicidal people and enforced evictions. They arrived for shootings and car thefts, worked security at university events and directed traffic.
Though violent crime generates the most headlines, Denver’s patrol officers spent more than 80% of their time dealing with other less serious complaints and a wide array of community tasks.
As Denver debates police funding in the wake of massive protests and a budget crisis caused by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, The Denver Post asked the Denver Police Department to analyze how its officers spend their time. The data show that for every rape, shooting or armed robbery, there are seven times as many calls for other community needs, ranging from domestic disputes and noise complaints to EMS assists.
The nation is reckoning with law enforcement’s role in society, leading police to defending their roles as first-responders who answer calls for crises 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Meanwhile, a growing body of reform-minded politicians, activists and other police experts say the data show the need for a new approach to policing.
In Denver, a proposal to abolish the police department in favor of a “peace force” failed. But the city has announced cuts to its policing budget, largely because of the economic crisis, and now the police union contract is up for debate as Council decides whether officers should get raises when other city employees are not. In other cities, police department budgets have been slashed; in Austin, Texas, the police budget was cut by a third and about $150 million was moved into social services and alternative public safety programs.
Denver police division chief Ron Thomas said a budget cut of Austin’s magnitude would cripple Denver.
“The talk of defunding police is kinda tantamount to defunding the city,” he said. “People will not live and work and play in a city they don’t feel safe in.”
But Paul Taylor, a former University of Colorado Boulder cop who now teaches police policy and training at CU Denver, said it’s time cities look for creative solutions to address duties long-held by police.
“The question becomes: Are they the right tool for that job?” Taylor said. “What happens when they have an interaction and their only tools are the use of force, citation or arrest?”
Breaking down police calls
Denver police analyzed two sets of data for The Denver Post’s request: Calls for service — which includes calls to 911 and officer-initiated calls — as well as how much time officers spent on scene once they answered those calls.
While Denver’s report provides a helpful breakdown of police officers’ roles, it is not a perfect representation of how the department’s nearly 1,600 officers spend their days.
The analysis did not include meetings, calls that were not dispatched and administrative tasks. In addition, the numbers only pertain to patrol officers so it doesn’t include detectives who work on homicide, rapes or thefts. Nor does it include supervisors such as sergeants who often respond to calls alongside patrol officers or officers assigned to other roles such as instructors at the training academy or those who serve in community relations. The data was broken down by patrol vehicle, not officer, so it does not reflect whether one or two people spent time on the issue.
Between Jan. 1 and June 30, police responded to 367,550 calls. Violent crime accounted for 52,428 of them, or 14%, according to department data. Those calls included assaults, child abuse and neglect, kidnapping, robberies, shootings, stabbings, riots, threats and domestic violence — which accounted for nearly 35% of all violent crimes.
That means the majority of calls require officers to deal with a variety of other tasks such as petty thefts, vandalism, traffic stops, medical assists, neighborhood patrols and responding to burglar alarms.
While calls for service represent a good look at what the public asks of police, the amount of time officers are on a scene is a more accurate reflection of how cops spend their time, department analysts said. To figure that out, the analysts added how many total minutes all patrol officers spent on various call categories and then calculated what percentage of time was spent on each category. They found:
- Violent crimes: 17.9%, or 58,037 hours
- Property crimes: 11.9%, or 38,738 hours
- Other offenses, such as fireworks, harassment, curfew violations, drunk people, etc.: 26%, or 84,230 hours
- Traffic, including parking complaints, abandoned vehicles and radar enforcement: 11%, or 34,343 hours
- Proactive patrol: 7%, or 21,907 hours (Police said this percentage was much higher pre-COVID.)
- Non-criminal tasks such as found property, inmate transport or missing people: 5%, or 15,340 hours
- Assisting other agencies: 3.7%, or 11,937 hours
- Unknown offenses, such as suspicious activity: 7.4% or 24,042 hours
As the debate over policing continues, one area getting a lot of attention is who should respond to medical calls, including when someone is having a mental health crisis. In many cities, advocates say those calls would be better handled by professional clinicians, and in Denver mental health responders have been joining officers on calls since 2016.
This summer, the city launched a pilot program, the Support Team Assisted Response or STAR, where a paramedic and mental health clinician respond without police. Thus far, police have not been asked to back up the clinicians on their more than 350 calls, according to program organizers.
Still, in the first six months of 2020, medicals calls — falls, headaches, overdoses, burns, breathing problems and diabetic issues, as well as suicidal people and others experiencing mental health emergencies — accounted for 8%, or 26,647 hours, of police officers’ work.
Are police asked to do too much?
The debate over what cities ask their police officers to do is not new.
In 2015, after five Dallas police officers were killed and another seven were injured in a shooting, the city’s police chief said: “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country. We are. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve.”
But Thomas, who supervises Denver’s patrol division, said officers “gladly accept our role as first responders.”
“We know we’ll be called to things we’re not necessarily experts in,” he said, noting that other agencies don’t have the 24-hour-a-day capabilities of police. “Whether that’s medical calls or other things of that nature … we’ve been in this role for so long. We’ve kind of become experts in identifying the right agencies for people to respond to.”
In many situations, such as domestic fights or clearing homeless camps, it’s important for officers to be there in case things escalate, Thomas said.
Police have become so entrenched in these different roles that they might have a hard time imagining any other way, Taylor, the professor, said. And when jurisdictions have fewer high-level emergency calls, police departments find ways to fill officers’ time. That’s why it’s important to understand their various roles in a community, he said.
Defunding or abolishing the police has become politically expedient in some places, Taylor said, but he worries about taking serious measures without having replacement services ready to fill the gaps. That means trying out various options on smaller scales — such as Denver’s STAR program — to see how they work.
“Why completely abolish the system without testing what it is you want to test?” he said.