Columbus Police: Officer shortage root of long wait times for 911 responses

NBC4 Investigates

COLUMBUS (WCMH) — During an emergency, every second matters. But in Columbus, it can be hours after a 911 call until a police officer arrives.

Multiple viewers have contacted NBC4 Investigates, asking why it took Columbus police so long to respond to their calls for help. One of those callers was Teaira Gamble.

Gamble was on her lunch break on June 21. Her mother was in the car with her when another vehicle collided with theirs at the intersection of N. Napoleon Ave. and E. Broad St. According to Gamble, the traffic signal was out, so drivers were treating the intersection as a four-way stop.

The other driver involved sped away.

Gamble first called 911 to report the crash at 12:38 p.m. She told the dispatcher she was unable to get out of her vehicle because the driver’s side door was smashed in. Paramedics arrived within minutes to pry Gamble’s door open.

She and her mother were sore but OK. Gamble said they declined transport to the hospital, and kept waiting.

During that time, Gamble said the driver that hit her returned to the scene of the crash and threatened her, before leaving again.

“The lady that hit my car and ran just had the audacity to roll back past here and talk a whole bunch of (expletive), and then make threats and said she’s going to go get some people because we’re still sitting here,” Gamble told a dispatcher at 12:58 p.m. when she placed her second 911 call. “I need a police unit to come here because if they’re coming back with guns and something happens, that’s on y’all.”

Columbus dispatchers received eight 911 calls from Gamble and passersby over three-and-a-half hours related to the accident, according to records NBC4 Investigates requested from Columbus police.

During later calls, dispatchers told Gamble that officers were responding to higher priority calls and no one was available to help her.

According to the incident report, officers were dispatched to Gamble’s crash at 4:30 p.m. They arrived at the scene at 4:35 p.m., three hours and 57 minutes after Gamble placed her first call to 911.

“This should not have happened,” Gamble told NBC4 Investigates. “I just feel like I was totally neglected by the system.”

Officers took the report and found the other driver at fault for the wreck. That person still has not been located.

“There’s not a lot of trust with police in our community, and this is one of the prime examples why,” Gamble said. “When we actually need you to come out, you don’t respond to the situation.”

Gamble believes the four-hour response time cost the officers critical information.

“There were witnesses on the scene. They stayed on the scene for about an hour, waiting for the police to come just so that they could give their statement,” Gamble said. “And no one showed up.”

According to Sgt. James Fuqua, there were two high-priority calls that would have affected the response to Gamble’s crash.

The first came in at 12:36 p.m., two minutes before Gamble’s first call. According to Fuqua, a semi-truck jackknifed on US Hwy. 33 at Refugee Rd., tying up 11 patrol units until 3:48 p.m.

The second call was a shooting at 2:45 p.m. It happened on E. Livingston Ave. and tied up six patrol units.

Fuqua said Columbus dispatchers prioritize calls on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the highest priority. Calls in which a person’s life is in danger or there is an imminent risk of bodily harm are given a 1, while minor infractions, like parking violations, are given a 5.

In Gamble’s case, Fuqua said her call was initially given a 2 because she requested a paramedic. But when she declined to be taken to the hospital, the call was bumped down to a 4.

Still, Columbus police acknowledge that long response times are an issue. During an interview with NBC4 Investigates last week, Chief Elaine Bryant said it’s a problem she’s looking into.

“I have not delved into the specifics in regards to how long it’s taking for nonviolent crimes and the response,” Bryant said after completing her first week on the job. “But that is going to be something that I’m going to look at across the board.”

Columbus is divided into five patrol zones, with four precincts in each zone. According to Fuqua, a minimum of five patrol units are on the streets in each precinct at a time. While he said that number is typically higher, he would not discuss specific numbers and times for tactical reasons.

Fuqua said understaffing is a long-standing issue at the root of the problem. The Columbus Division of Police is actively recruiting new officers, with the current application filing period closing on July 31.

“We are going to be extremely heavy in trying to recruit,” Bryant said. “Everywhere and everyone. We want to diversify and be inclusive, but we want to create equity.”

Bryant said she’d like to conduct outreach at local colleges and universities, and implement a “day-in-the-life” program that allows potential recruits to shadow officers on the job.

For more information on joining the Columbus Division of Police, click here.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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