Target 11 Investigates delayed police response times

PITTSBURGH — Delayed police response times in Pittsburgh are leading to safety concerns among some residents, who say they’ve had to wait for officers during emergency situations.

Now, some are blaming the slow response on the declining number of city officers.

Target 11 has been reporting on police staffing struggles for the past year.

Target 11 Investigator Rick Earle spoke with two women who are raising questions about the response time.

“I came back up like this, went like this to the door. I locked it. I grabbed this knife,” said Jordan Seiler.

Holding a butcher knife behind her door, Seiler frantically called 911.

“I felt the tension and my hands were shaking. My chest was still pounding,” said Seiler, who lives in an apartment building in Friendship.

Seiler told Target 11 that a strange man followed her back into her apartment building around 4:30 a.m., after she had taken her dog out.

“I’m running up and by the time I had my hand on the doorknob, he was running up the stairs. I can hear the creaking. He followed me,” said Seiler.

Seiler called 911 at 4:32am.

Minutes later, according to Allegheny County’s Chief of Emergency Services,  Pittsburgh police were dispatched.

Target 11 obtained that dispatch call.

“A tall male got out of the car really fast and came into the building right after she walked in, scared the caller and seemed suspicious to her,” said the Allegheny County dispatcher.

Seiler then waited and waited.

“It must have felt like an eternity for you.  You’re sitting here for 20 minutes, with this guy is right outside your door?,” asked Earle.

“It really was like I didn’t know how long he was going to stay,” said Seiler.

Seiler told Target 11 that the strange man only said one word, “Hello,” while he was standing outside her door for approximately 20 minutes.

After calling 911, Seiler called her mother.

She then decided to call her neighbor.

She said the loud ring from the phone in her neighbor’s apartment must have startled the man, because he then took off.

She saw him leave and get into a car. She couldn’t see his license plate because a tree was blocking her view.

She said police told her there are no city surveillance cameras in the area. She and her friends were searching for any door or home cameras that may have captured the man, but never found any.

Pittsburgh Police finally arrived at Seiler’s apartment at 5:02 a.m.

A Department of Public Safety officer told us that those police officers were delayed because they were assisting serving a warrant on a violent suspect.

“I respect that they were working on something also serious, but this could have potentially went really bad to the fact that I could have been physically hurt,” said Seiler.

Just two months earlier in Hazelwood, a woman called 911 at 1:18 p.m.

“My youngest daughter here heard a brick going through my kitchen window,” said Tammy Novak.

An hour later, Pittsburgh Police still had not arrived.

At 2:18 p.m., she made a second call to 911 asking for an officer’s estimated time of arrival.

“I just couldn’t believe it. I was just sitting here like, where are they? And then I was sitting down, and then it all happened so quick,” said Novak.

Target 11 also obtained part of the dispatch call for this incident.

“This detail has been pending for 77 minutes. Entered as a burglary or home invasion, but it wasn’t quite that,” said the Allegheny County dispatcher.

While Novak and her daughter waited for police, the suspects returned. One of them was carrying a gun, and attacked Novak and her daughter.

“I had just got done cleaning the glass up.  Two came from this way. One, the one with the gun, came from that way and he grabbed (my daughter) right away, had the gun to her head.  the other dude slammed me down,” said Novak, who suffered a concussion along with multiple cuts and bruises.

At 2:52 p.m., one hour and 34 minutes after the first call to 911, a neighbor called 911 while Novak and her daughter fought with the suspects.

“At the end of the day, the simple answer is there’s not an officer available to respond to that,” said Allegheny county Emergency Services Chief Matt Brown.

“If there’s not an officer available, the call goes into pending?,” asked Earle.

“It goes into pending,” said Brown. It was unclear if there was something more urgent happening at that time.

Brown said the call was initially placed in pending because there weren’t any officers available to respond at that time.

But Brown said the dispatcher in the case failed to follow protocol. He said based on the priority of the call, the dispatcher should have followed up with the police supervisor.  He said that did not happen and the dispatcher has since undergone retraining.

“It was an urgent. It was an urgent,” said Brown.

“So based on that, the dispatcher should have (done what)?” asked Earle.

“Should have highlighted that to the officer in charge, and they neglected to do that,” said Brown.

“They should have been here the first call; then the second call, nobody; and the third call, what was the excuse for that?,” said Novak, who suffered head and arm injuries.

Target 11 requested response times from city police, but they declined to release them.

Target 11 also filed a “right to know” request in an attempt to obtain the data, but the city denied our request, stating they didn’t have the data. Target 11 also filed a right to know request with Allegheny County. They did provide response times, but the data is not broken down by department, so it’s unclear what department each response time is for.

The 2020 annual Pittsburgh Police report lists an average response time of 7.2 minutes for priority calls. The 2021 report states an average response time of 4.7 minutes for priority calls.

“We’re severely overcommitted and under-resourced, and the problem is outrageous,” said Pittsburgh Police Officer Union President Robert Swartzwelder, who said 247 officers are eligible to retire today.

Swartzwelder maintains that it all comes down to staffing. Sixty-nine officers have left the force this year alone and there are no officers to replace them yet.

The department currently has 838 officers, but 50 of them are out on either injury, pending arbitration or military leave.

In the six zones throughout the city, 367 officers are currently answering calls.  Those officers have to cover shifts 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Since 2017, 401 officers have retired or resigned. It’s unclear how many were replaced during academy classes in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

“It’s completely unacceptable. The city knows it’s occurring, and it’s occurring in more than the ones you discovered. Logic will tell you that when your staffing is reduced, your response times are going to slow down substantially,” said Swartzwelder.

“When it comes to safety, we’re always concerned ... internally and do(ing) what’s necessary as we always are, more than anybody, any issue that’s come up, we’ve been able to address it and make improvements,” said Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, who has indicated that he’s committed to holding two academy classes next year to get more police officers on the streets. It’s unclear how many cadets will be in each of those new classes. The city delayed classes during the pandemic and they won’t resume until next year.

The previous administration put money in the budget for a new academy class this year, but the class was not created.

The two victims we spoke with said they are upset about that.

“My daughter called and said a brick was thrown ... we think we’re getting burglarized or robbed. They should have been here,” said Tammy Novak.

“I was infuriated. I was like, if the police had come faster, respond(ed) faster, (it)  could have been different to protect others,” said Jordan Seiler.

Seiler said she was also disappointed that she never heard back from Pittsburgh police.

In the Hazelwood case, Police eventually arrested and charged three juveniles with attacking Novak and her daughter.

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