State proposes greater access for 311 noncrisis police line Md. counties could join Baltimore within months

October 02, 1997|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

The three-digit nonemergency police number established in Baltimore last year could be available within several months to any Maryland county that wants it, state officials announced yesterday.

The governor's office is proposing paying for the new system by allowing local jurisdictions to use money raised through the monthly 911 surcharge of 60 cents per phone line. Regulatory approval would be required.

Baltimore, Howard, Prince George's and Montgomery counties have expressed interest. The federal government selected Baltimore City as its two-year test site last year. It is the only city in the nation with the 311 non-emergency number.

"Very soon, any county that wants 311 to alleviate an overburdened emergency system will get it," said Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, speaking at a news conference yesterday to celebrate the one-year anniversary of 311.

Speakers -- from Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to acting Associate U.S. Attorney General John Dwyer -- praised Baltimore's efforts and said the number has accomplished its goals: to clear 911 lines for true emergencies and to free officers from running from call to call.

"Every day, thousands of 911 callers hang up in despair because the operator can't get to their call," Townsend said, adding that the 311 line "gives officers time to prevent crime, rather than react after the blood has been spilled."

Townsend, who has made public safety a priority of her tenure, said, "911 is one of the core trusts between citizens and government. To citizens, 911 means 'now.' When it doesn't, lives can be lost."

Police departments across the country have struggled with overburdened 911 systems. Many people use 911, established 30 years ago, to make routine inquiries, such as asking for directions or removal of double-parked cars.

Baltimore police dispatchers answered 1.8 million calls to 911 in 1995 and 1.7 million last year -- the numbers include fire and ambulance calls -- and officials estimate that 60 percent were not emergencies. Police acknowledge that callers in life-threatening situations have been put on hold.

But in a study of Baltimore's 311 line released yesterday, officials said it has exceeded expectations. During the past 12 months, according to the report, 911 dispatchers answered 1.1 million calls. The 311 dispatchers handled 854,000 calls.

Before 311, all 25 emergency dispatchers were on the phone at (( the same time an average of 219 hours each month. With 311, that has been reduced to 47 hours. The average time it takes a 911 dispatcher to answer a call has been reduced from six seconds to two seconds. The percentage of people being put on hold is down from 18 percent to 5 percent.

Even more telling, police commanders said, was that for the first time since 1990, the number of cars dispatched has declined. In 1995, for example, patrol cars were sent on calls 991,945 times, a 4 percent increase from 1994. That has dropped 4 percent with 311 in 1996 and 1997, they said.

"That translates into an extra hour a day of free patrol time for every police officer who can do a better job serving you," said Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier. "This allows good cops to do what they want to do -- proactive community-oriented police enforcement."

Several states and cities also have expressed interest in the number, including California and Colorado and Los Angeles, Dallas and Chicago.

"The Baltimore Police Department has improved its ability to offer the public better police services," said Joseph A. Brann, director of the Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

"You are sending a loud message to the rest of the country," he said. "They are no longer watching you. They are trying to emulate you."

Pub Date: 10/02/97

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