AUSTIN — After a 10-year legal battle, the city must start collecting and publishing data on 911 response times, information advocates say will help publicly scrutinize disparities in emergency response between white and nonwhite neighborhoods.
The agreement comes through a settlement with the Central Austin Neighborhood Association. The West Side group sued the city in 2011, saying police for decades failed to show up when residents would call 911 to report shootings, thefts and open-air drug markets that blocked drivers from passing through residential streets.
The case was initially dismissed, but the American Civil Liberties Union successfully appealed. The city and the West Side group agreed to a settlement in 2016, and it’s taken five years to finalize the details.
Limited data released through the litigation found Black and Latino neighborhoods routinely had no police response to 911 calls, while officers are dispatched with haste to deal with non-emergency calls in white areas, ACLU spokesman Ed Yohnka said.
The settlement will make more of that data public and allow residents to hold police accountable for how they respond to emergencies in Black and Latino areas, said Serethea Reid, the West Side group’s co-founder.
The inaction of police in Black neighborhoods is an issue of racial equity because “in other parts of the city, this is not what happens there,” Reid said.
“People are running down the street shooting, and yet we can’t get a police officer,” Reid said. “But they will pull you over because you got a missing tail light? And there’s nothing life-threatening about a missing tail light.
“… We want measurable outcomes. It’s another tool that we can use in terms of getting them to do a more equitable allocation of police resources.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office, the city’s law department and the Police Department did not comment on the settlement.
Areas where residents think police are most absent during life-threatening emergencies are also Chicago’s most overpoliced neighborhoods.
A Block Club analysis of 2020 police data showed officers disproportionately pull over drivers in Black neighborhoods, especially Austin, Garfield Park and Englewood. Those stops rarely result in drug or gun seizures, or even traffic citations.
People in those areas are also more likely to get parking tickets than in white neighborhoods, an analysis using ProPublica data showed.
“For decades, everybody has known that deployment was an issue,” Yohnka said. “Violent crime in Black and Brown communities got slow response. Property crime in white communities got an instant response.”
The issue has flown under the radar until now because police did not effectively collect data that would show if the department was equitably responding to emergency calls, Yohnka said.
“This data just didn’t exist,” he said. The Police Department “has never been able to quantify this because we could look at the circumstances where an officer was not able to respond. But they couldn’t tell you anything about how long it would take for officers to show up.”
Now, the city now must collect data on police response times for at least 80 percent of all emergency calls within three years. As of now, the city only has the capacity to produce that data for 60 percent of calls, settlement documents said.
The data on dispatch response times for each police district will be published monthly. Reporting will begin within three months after the settlement is approved in court.
“It took a lot” to keep pushing the city to address the issue, Reid said. The lawsuit required weekly meetings, countless public information requests and gathering support to neighbors.
“Everybody doesn’t have the capacity, the energy or the ability to do that. So that’s why we continued to persevere,” Reid said.
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