Dropping the call

Illustration by Cat Frink

The Eugene City Council has been approaching ways to provide a safer environment for the Eugene community after recent accounts of robberies in the city and news of disregarded phone calls to the Eugene Police Department.

According to EPD Public Information Director Melinda McLaughlin, between Feb. 23 and March 22, there were 12 reports of robberies — mainly daylight robberies and store robberies — throughout Eugene. These included the armed robbery at Subway on 18th Avenue on March 3 and the armed robbery at Little Caesars Pizza near West 11th Avenue on March 23.

Amid these robberies near the University of Oregon campus, the Register-Guard released an article on March 11 that revealed statistics showing that the EPD “disregarded one-third of the daily average calls” it received in 2017.

Kaylin Lechner, a West Eugene resident, experienced this difficulty with the EPD first-hand during the beginning of March when a person broke into the back door of her home and again approximately a week later when she witnessed a person attempting to break into cars, including her own.

“I talked to dispatch both times,” Lechner said, “and both times dispatch said an officer would come out, and an officer would call me. Neither time did that happen.”

Lechner said that she felt as if her call did not matter and added that she has “never felt 100 percent safe” in Eugene.

Details about the EPD’s failure to respond to various calls from the community and the reasons behind this struggle were expressed in a presentation to the Eugene City Council during a public hearing on Feb. 20. Interim Executive Police Director David James presented the majority of the statistics, expressing his “concern that community members are not receiving the quality of services we believe they deserve.”

According to the U.S. Census, the Eugene population has increased by 4.4 percent from 2014 to 2017 and is likely to continue steadily increasing. During the same time frame, James said, the daily average public-initiated calls to the EPD has increased by 20.6 percent. However, the number of dispatch communication specialists in Eugene has not changed and the number of budgeted sworn officers in the city has decreased from 193 to 192 over those years.

The daily average response time from the EPD per phone call has increased by 86.7 percent, James added, which is approximately a 19.3-minute increase in response time. Because there is an increase in calls but not enough officers to respond to them, James said, the majority of this time increase resides in the time it takes to dispatch a call to an available unit. The dispatchers “are looking at a screen [of calls] that never goes away,” James said.

“This is like having an in-basket on your desk and you take a piece of paper off and somebody puts five pieces of paper on top of it. [The call-takers] can’t do anything about it. There’s no one to send.”

James concluded the presentation by laying out the goals of the EPD: to reduce the number of calls to the EPD that are disregarded, to reduce the response time to these calls and to resolve cases quickly. In order to accomplish these goals and uphold public safety, James stated, the EPD must be adequately staffed.

According to McLaughlin, the EPD is currently running statistics on crime rates in Eugene, so it is “hard to tell if [the number of recent robberies] is unusual for Eugene.” Nonetheless, in response to the recent robberies, the EPD has been staffing its units with additional officers, focusing officers on near-campus areas where many of the robberies have been taking place and having volunteers policing Eugene throughout the day. The EPD has also had a meeting with the University of Oregon Police Department on March 20 to discuss approaches, such as producing safety tips for students through social media, to ensure a secure community.

Individuals in Eugene play a significant role in protecting the community’s safety as well. In addition to advising the public to be aware of their surroundings, not walk home alone and to stay in well-lit areas, the EPD website encourages the community to take advantage of the tip line that the department has set up. The website asks that the community “immediately report robberies or suspicious conditions, as this will increase the chances of apprehending suspects” involved in reported cases. In short, as the website states, “if you see something, say something.”