Spring Lake Park council member asks tough questions about police response

Is an elapsed time of almost 10 minutes too long for police to respond once law enforcement is dispatched to a 911 call?Councilmember Dale Dahl thinks so. That’s why the public safety subject was discussed at two consecutive Spring Lake Park City Council meetings this month.

Dahl asked Police Chief Doug Ebeltoft March 5 why it took an officer that much time to reach the scene of an Feb. 24 residential burglary that his wife had witnessed.

Two weeks later, Ebeltoft provided the council with a follow-up report about the incident, as well as general background about department shifts and staffing.

“My wife witnessed a house across the street being burglarized,” Dahl said. “There’s an elderly lady who lives there and fortunately, she wasn’t home.”

Dahl said his wife saw a man stop in front of a house on Maple Street, go to the front door and knock.

When no one came to the door, Dahl said his wife saw the man knock again and when no one came to the door, the man pulled something out of a backpack and walked around to the back of the house.

“My wife immediately called 911 and was telling the 911 operator to send out a squad,” he said. “During the time she was watching the whole thing, she’s watched the front picture window shake as the guy broke down the back door. That’s how she knew he was actually in the house. He opened the curtains and peered out.”

Dahl’s said his wife told him that it took a Spring Lake Park police officer 10 minutes to reach the scene.

During that time, Dahl’s wife called him several times via iPhone, he said.

According to Dahl, the officer was the only one on duty when the call came in and was at the department shooting range when he received the call dispatch.

“What was he doing there if we only had one officer on duty?” Dahl asked. “Why wasn’t there more of a quick response time? He should have been caught.”

Ebeltoft said there are numerous times when the Spring Lake Park department only has one officer on duty during the day because of staffing considerations.

“Each officer in the department does many different things,” Ebeltoft said. “The officer in question also deals with range issues. Is this ideal? No. It’s a reality of life we have to deal with more than one thing. I’m assuming the officer responded in a quiet or covert manner. We did track an individual [with this case].”

During the March 5 discussion of police response times, Ebeltoft said he could not comment directly on the time because he didn’t have it in front of him.

“Two minutes can seem like an hour [in such cases],” he said. “I don’t know if your wife was watching the clock tick or what.”

Dahl replied, “Oh yes, she was.”

According to Dahl, his wife called back after 10 minutes had elapsed and the alleged burglar was gone.

Ebeltoft responded to that by addressing the police call process.

“I would have to look at the call time versus the dispatch time to the response time,” he said.

“You are right 10 minutes is a considerable amount of time. Does that mean [the burglar] was there previous to that or they were not seen? Again, I don’t know.

“We’ve had issues with the range and [the officer in question] is in charge of fixing and repair. I know that he did have a line down for one of the shooting lanes. He did tell me he was going to take a look at that.”

In his follow-up with the council March 19, Ebeltoft provided additional detail about the Feb. 24 daytime burglary call, responding to Dahl’s original list of questions.

“[When] Councilmember Dahl brought this forward, I didn’t have a whole lot of answers, I want to bring forth a complete reasoning of what transpired,” Ebeltoft said.

According to Ebeltoft, he conducted a police report query of the past six months, from September 2011 to February 2012, to tally daytime and nighttime burglaries in residential areas, in addition to reports involving businesses and overall attempted burglaries.

“There were seven burglaries, including attempted burglaries during that time,” Ebeltoft said.

“Of those seven, two were daytime. There were three overnights; of those, we caught the individual involved during the incident or shortly thereafter. The rest were alleged. Burglaries do occur. We do have things like this happen, but it’s not running rampant by any means.”

Ebeltoft told Dahl he didn’t have a problem discussing public safety issues.

“If you want to contact me personally or talk in a public forum, that’s fine with me,” he said. “I’m more than happy to discuss them. As chief, it’s my duty to the mayor, council and the public to provide an accurate and complete understanding of these events in our community to the best of my ability.”

Ebeltoft said he checked the Anoka County law enforcement dispatch log, which indicated the Feb. 24 call was received at 9:36 a.m. and dispatched at 9:38 a.m.

“Our officer did not arrive until 9:45 a.m. That’s a total of nine minutes,” he said. “That’s not including the time it took the caller to give the information to dispatch, then to give the information to the officer to dispatch them. You figure that in, and that’s seven minutes. Still, in my opinion, that’s a great amount of time.”

Ebeltoft confirmed that the dispatched police officer was in the shooting range completing line repairs and after doing that, the officer was doing some shooting.

“I’ve instructed all officers when they are on duty and they are the only one working, there will be no range repairs and there will not be any shooting [as a means to] increase response time,” he said.

According to Ebeltoft, the officer was working alone and had to respond to two additional calls at the same time Feb. 24.

“He was responding to the call at hand and received two other calls: a burglary in progress with motion detected inside and an identify theft call,” Ebeltoft said.

Ideally, as police chief, he said it’s his preference to have two officers on duty at any given time. The reality, Ebeltoft said, is he only has one-and-a-half.

The Spring Lake Park Police Department runs three primary shifts: a day shift, an afternoon and a night shift and operates on a rotating schedule.

This equates to three officers for a 24-hour period. Those shifts are supplemented with what’s called power shifts to fill gaps, he said. Power shifts cover days off and vacations and injuries. Officers also work hours in between a primary shift and day shift.

“We may have a day car with a morning power shift, but for some reason, if the afternoon car calls in sick, or is injured or has a day off, that officer is moved to that shift to cover. Then we only have one officer per shift,” Ebeltoft said.

“If the council wishes to have a minimum of two or three officers on, that would require at least four to six more officers.”

Dahl replied, “That’s insane.”

City Administrator Barbara Nelson said scheduling was affected by officers being entitled to two weekend days off, as well as injuries and time spent in court.

Ebeltoft said the Feb. 24 burglary mentioned by Dahl is under investigation. “We’re exhausting all leads as we get them to bring that person to justice,” he said.

Tim Hennagir is at tim.hennagir@ecm-inc.com