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Richmonders concerned about slow police response, long 911 wait times; safety departments understaffed

Posted at 4:49 PM, Feb 24, 2023

RICHMOND, Va. -- As Richmond's public safety departments grapple with staffing shortages, residents from different parts of the city are concerned about slow response times when they find themselves in an emergency.

Donald Bryant has lived on the Southside, just off Richmond Highway, for more than 60 years. While he loves his community, he said there's one concern that never goes away.

“Public safety is the main thing ‘round here, keeping people safe," Bryant said. “I’ve been here some nights in my house and hear gunshots going all over the place.”

He tries to stay alert and on guard at all times by using security cameras to monitor his front and back yards, but he wants more help, specifically from the police.

Over the years, he said he's noticed a rise in crime, yet a reduction in officers patrolling the area. He said there's also less community policing. 

“Try and get us more policemen on the ground. That’s what we want," Bryant said. “Just once a while, have a policeman drive by, talk to one the neighbors, see what they're doing, get to know the people in the community.”

Additionally, he said he's unsatisfied with the amount of time it takes for police to respond to reported incidents.

And when he calls 911 to report an issue, he said he gets put on hold.

"I had called 911 a lot of times, and they don't get here quick as they do. It takes a little while," Bryant said. “If somebody’s on the ground, and you call 911, you can't wait a couple of minutes or a minute.”

Residents on the other side of town said they're facing similar problems. Paul Vaughn, who lives in Church Hill, said even if he does get through to a 911 dispatcher, it's a gamble whether officers will show up. 

“Usually, I'll wait up to two minutes. If it takes any longer than two minutes, I just give up," Vaughn said about calling 911. “I’ve become accustomed to trying to solve the problem myself first and then reach out to the police.”

Vaughn said examples of past safety concerns he's reported, but police did not respond to, include package thefts, car break-ins, and suspicious activity. He said now, he knows what police "will and won't show up for."

"And sometimes it's surprising what they won't show up for," he added.

For instance, he said it took police about fifteen minutes to respond to reported gunshots in his back alleyway back in the summer of 2020, and he said police did not respond to an incident last February when a man allegedly set a portable toilet on fire on the property next door.

Vaughn said he's had conversations with officers before to ask them about their response times.

"They will tell you themselves staffing is a problem," Vaughn said. 

Right now, the Richmond Police Department is down 157 officers out of 755 sworn positions, a vacancy rate of 21%.

The city's 911 center is down 28 dispatchers out of 85 positions, a vacancy rate of 33%.

Stephen Willoughby, Director of Emergency Preparedness and Response for the City of Richmond, said the 911 call center has been dealing with staffing shortages since the pandemic and civil unrest of 2020.

He said Richmond 911 answers at least 75% of calls within 15 seconds. The national standard is 90%.

But on Friday, the emergency department graduated thirteen new employees. They're already starting to answer calls, and Willoughby said they helped improve the volume of calls answered within 15 seconds to 87% last week.

However, he said during times when the number of calls outpaces call takers, people will hear an automated recording. That recording alerts staff of pending calls. He said the most important thing to remember: don't hang up.

"The most urgent calls are the ones that are dispatched to police officers," Willoughby said. "I want to reassure the public that in the most critical emergencies, officers are arriving on the scene and arriving in a timely manner. Less critical, the longer it may take based upon some staffing challenges."

Willoughby said the department is in the process of reviewing applicants for its next training academy which will begin in April. He said while automated recordings will not be going away, the goal is for callers to hear them less.

CBS 6 asked Richmond Police about the impact of its staffing shortages on patrol, community policing, and prioritization of calls. CBS 6 has not heard back yet.

Combined department vacancies are costing the city millions of dollars.

Last year, emergency communications spent $840,000 in overtime pay. Police spent $6.2 million in overtime.

“$6 million dollars? I did not know that. That's taxpayer dollars," said Richmond Councilor Reva Trammell, who chairs the council's public safety committee.

She vowed the address overtime pay in her next public safety committee meeting.

Trammell agreed that the staffing issues stemmed from unrest and COVID-19.

“I think it's because of the way that the police officers were treated back in 2020. When we had the riots here in the City of Richmond, they felt like there was no leadership," Trammell said. “And think about those dispatchers, what they had to hear.”

Looking ahead, she said some potential solutions include:

  • continue increasing pay for first responders (city council’s budget last year included pay raises for all city employees including first responders)
  • offering incentives such as helping first responders buy homes in the city
  • improving relations with the public

 "I just know that we got to come to the table together. We council members cannot do it by ourselves," Trammell said. "Put the officers back on the street. We've got to feel safe in our city, got to know when you call 911, somebody's going to answer."

Richmonders like Vaughn and Bryant encourage the greater community to lean on their neighbors to help keep each other safe as they hope city leaders figure out the staffing dilemmas. 

"If they're short-staffed, they're hurting people in communities," Bryant said.

“Let’s do something about it. Seriously do something about it," Vaughn said.

Here's a look at the staffing levels of other public safety agencies:

Richmond Ambulance Authority is down 29 paramedics out of 120 total positions. A spokesperson said RAA has improved staffing levels every year since the pandemic.

RAA spent $707,000 in overtime pay last year, but a spokesperson said it was already budgeted for to reflect paramedics’ schedules.

The sheriff's office is down 50% of its deputies with 170 deputies on staff and 170 vacancies. The sheriff has repeatedly cited covid and unrest for the shortfall.

The city jail, managed by the sheriff’s office, spent about $2.9 million in overtime security last year.

The Richmond Fire Department has significantly improved staffing since the pandemic. RFD currently has six vacancies out of 401 total positions. A spokesperson credited its "reimagined" hiring process, which shortened the timeframe for online testing and evaluations, for its success.

RFD spent $4.7 million in overtime costs during this past fiscal year.

CBS 6 requested an interview with Mayor Levar Stoney for this story, but the mayor was not available this week.

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