Jim and Jean Lustig were less than a mile from home on the night of June 16 when a Chevy Lumina sedan slammed into their car on Milwaukee’s far northwest side.
An 82-year-old lung cancer survivor, Jim Lustig began complaining of chest pains after the collision at N. 91st St. and W. Bradley Road. He would die two days later at Froedtert Hospital from injuries suffered in the crash.
Milwaukee firefighters and paramedics arrived about five minutes after receiving the 911 call.
But it took Milwaukee police more than two hours to respond to the crash – despite repeated requests from the Milwaukee Fire Department for assistance, police and fire department records show.
By then, crash victims had been taken to area hospitals, while witnesses and firefighters had left the scene. It wasn’t until two days after the crash that police met two key witnesses at the scene in an attempt to reconstruct what happened.
The delayed response to the fatal crash is part of a larger trend of Milwaukee police responding to calls more slowly, the Journal Sentinel has found.
Average police response time to calls for service was slower last year than before Police Chief Edward Flynn took over in January 2008, the newspaper’s review of Milwaukee police data shows.
Compared with 2007 figures, police response lagged in 13 of 15 major call categories – only responses to shooting and theft from a vehicle were faster.
For example, it took police 15 minutes longer on average in 2010 to dispatch a squad car to calls for theft, more than seven additional minutes for strong-arm robberies and six minutes longer for calls for sexual assault. And those delays don’t include the additional time it took squads to get to a crime scene.
Once dispatched, the time it took squads to arrive at the highest priority calls – such as shootings or armed robberies in progress – got slower by a minute and a half over that time, records show. It took police an average of almost 14 minutes to arrive at those calls last year.
The department now assigns more squad cars to proactive policing efforts rather than responding to emergency calls, a strategy Flynn says has helped drive down the city’s crime rate. But that shift often results in a slower response.
In a recent case, Milwaukee police took more than 45 minutes to get to a fatal stabbing in Riverwest on July 30, even though it was considered a top priority call and the caller told a dispatcher that she committed the violent act. Dora M. Simmons, 51, faces up to 10 years in prison after she was charged with stabbing her boyfriend in the chest in the 3800 block of N. Humboldt Blvd., according to the criminal complaint.
And in another example uncovered by the Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee police were unable to make arrests in an armed robbery case at a north side beauty salon in fall 2009 – after it took officers more than a half-hour to arrive at the scene.
In the case of the fatal crash, a quicker police response wouldn’t necessarily have saved Jim Lustig’s life, but the two-hour delay may have hampered investigators’ ability to hold anyone accountable for his death.
“Where were the police?” said son James Lustig Jr. of Sussex. “We are just looking for answers.”
During Flynn’s tenure, the Police Department has reported continued declines in crime numbers.
Besides burglary, which is down 1%, every violent and property crime category has dropped by double digits since 2007, department records show.
Meanwhile, clearance rates – the rate at which police clear crimes by making arrests – have remained steady for major crime categories. And the Milwaukee police force is about the same size, with 1,924 sworn personnel employed last year, or about 2% smaller than in 2005.
Flynn said a slower response to calls for service is merely a result of setting different priorities than his predecessor, Nanette Hegerty. Before his arrival, the department was myopic in its focus on rapid response to calls for service, he said.
Now, the Police Department has “reoccupied the public spaces” by expanding neighborhood policing efforts and ratcheting up the number of traffic and subject stops, Flynn said. The focus on proactive and data-driven policing, he said, has reduced crime in a way that couldn’t have been done by old-fashioned, reactive policing.
“Since the average resident of this city is willing to wait four hours for the cable guy and half a day for a furniture delivery, it seems to me a reasonable delay in responding for a call is an acceptable balance,” Flynn said in an interview with the Journal Sentinel.
“I’m willing to accept increased response time for decreased crime. And I’m willing to say a marginal increase in response time is directly related to our significant decrease in street crime. It’s allowing us to use district-based resources to do something else other than chase hitches, which is all they were doing before.”
Some law enforcement experts echoed Flynn’s remarks, saying police departments shouldn’t be judged on response times alone.
But Milwaukee Police Association President Mike Crivello and others disagree with the chief’s stance on the issue.
“I don’t know how you can say response times being slower is a good thing,” Crivello said. “To adopt a philosophy that response time doesn’t matter and to accept that it is no longer the department’s focus is absolutely problematic and should be unacceptable.”
Ald. Bob Donovan, chairman of the Common Council’s Public Safety Committee, said he is concerned about the newspaper’s findings and by the number of citizen complaints received by his office each month.
“Response to calls is a very, very low priority – Chief Flynn admits it,” said Donovan, who represents a south side district. “Yet we aren’t talking about a dog pooping on the front lawn. We are talking about serious disruption of neighborhoods that isn’t getting the necessary response.”
Milwaukee police officers are instructed to respond swiftly to high-priority emergency calls, but must rank less severe calls, Flynn said.
“If somebody is bleeding, we are going to get there right now. But for a vast majority of these calls, a somewhat delayed response is a very small price to pay for our ability to aggressively prevent crime,” he said in the interview, which took place earlier this year.
“I’m not trying to say, ‘We don’t care.’ We do care very much. But we as stewards of this very precious resource, which is police capacity, we have to balance it intelligently.”
‘He couldn’t breathe’
On the night of the June crash, Jenny Teubert of Milwaukee crouched down next to the Honda Civic, comforting the elderly couple whose car had just been knocked south across the intersection by the Lumina.
“He was saying he couldn’t breathe,” Teubert said. “He was saying he felt like his chest was caving in.”
In interviews with the newspaper , Teubert and another witness, Molly Sacharski of Menomonee Falls, both said the driver of the Lumina appeared to be speeding.
The Lustigs’ car was struck on the passenger side, and Jim Lustig was trapped by the crumpled steel chassis. Teubert helped the Lustigs unbuckle their seat belts. She gave Jim Lustig a shirt to stop the bleeding from cuts on his head and hand.
A couple minutes after the collision, Teubert dialed 911 at 10:15 p.m. to notify fire and police about Lustig’s chest pains. About five minutes later, a Milwaukee fire truck and an ambulance arrived at the crash scene.
Firefighters determined that Jim Lustig needed to be extracted from the vehicle. They radioed in for a ladder truck equipped with the Jaws of Life, a hydraulic rescue tool to free trapped passengers.
There was no sign of police.
Less than 10 minutes after Teubert’s call came in, a police dispatcher wrote in a call log that the Fire Department was “checking on squad, need squad to hurry, they need for traffic and someone has to get removed out of vehicle.”
The call report shows that squad cars in police District 4, which covers the far northwest side, were tied up on other calls. About 10 minutes later, the Fire Department was again requesting police squads to handle traffic around the crash scene.
According to the radio transmission, a Milwaukee firefighter tells a dispatcher, “Emergency personnel are in harm’s way with traffic right now. . . . I don’t want any of my personnel getting hit by cars.”
The call initially was classified by police as a priority 3, a category that includes property damage incidents . It was soon upgraded to priority 2 , which includes accidents with personal injuries. The Police Department uses an internal system to prioritize calls for service, typically ranking incidents as priority 1 calls if someone’s personal safety is in danger, such as shootings.
Nearly 35 minutes later, after Jim Lustig had been extracted from his vehicle, a police dispatcher wrote, “broadcast yet again . . . no response.”
The dispatcher also noted that squad cars were only available for top priority assignments because they were working in their designated “squad patrol areas.”
In each district, some officers are assigned to respond to emergencies. The remainder – often the majority of officers – are assigned to proactively patrol a district or an area that’s been identified recently as hot spot for criminal activity, police Lt. Michael Schmitz said.
Teubert said the slow police response bothered her.
“If (police) would have been there on time, they would have seen a lot more than just what I’m telling them,” she said. “They would have seen firsthand exactly what was going on.”
At 11:05 p.m., the Lustigs were taken to Community Memorial Hospital in Menomonee Falls and two victims from the Lumina were transported to St. Joseph Hospital in West Bend. Jim Lustig would later be flown by helicopter to Froedtert Hospital.
Two police squads eventually arrived at the crash scene more than two hours later, at 12:17 a.m.
Officers surveyed the scene and then spent the next several days tracking down witnesses and victims to piece together what had happened.
On June 18, two days after the crash, a police officer met Teubert and Sacharski at the crash scene and asked them describe what they had witnessed.
“I had to take him back to the scene after the fact,” said Teubert, who attended Jim Lustig’s funeral. “I was a little upset with that fact. I just had a rough idea of where things were. I only knew where the Lustigs’ car was. It seemed like it was a joke.”
The 47-year-old driver of the Lumina has not been ticketed or charged in the incident, according to available records. He has four felony convictions from the 1980s including one for hit and run, court records show. He had no automobile insurance at the time of the crash, according to the police accident report.
Jean Lustig also has not been cited or charged, according to available records.
Police did not respond to questions about the delayed response to the fatal crash.
Jim Lustig died in the early morning hours of June 19 at Froedtert Hospital.
A retired truck driver, he left behind Jean, his wife of 61 years, two sisters, three sons and five grandchildren.
“It was a long, happy marriage,” Jean Lustig said. “We made it through everything.”
Some police experts interviewed by the Journal Sentinel downplayed response times as an appropriate measure of a police department’s performance.
Getting to the scene quickly doesn’t mean police will have a better chance of making an arrest, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, based in Washington, D.C.
In past decades, police departments measured success based too heavily on response times, he said. Research conducted by his group and others in the 1970s and 1980s found that the speed of response times alone does not determine the quality of police service.
A rapid response to calls for service only makes a difference for crimes that are in progress, Wexler said.
“These studies confirm that it wasn’t the time it took to get the call, it was what you did once you got there,” he said.
Wexler’s view is shared by Milwaukee police officials. Assistant Police Chief James Harpole said focusing on rapid response to calls is not an effective police strategy.
“I think smarter policing also means vetting the calls better and having more availability for squads to be in neighborhoods that are most impacted by crime,” Harpole said. “If every time a call came in we immediately sent a squad to that call, you would have no police patrolling your streets.”
Others see it differently.
Jim Ponzi, assistant professor of criminology at Regis University in Denver, said police response times are critical for maintaining public trust.
“The people who are paying the taxes for services are discouraged if the one time they need police, . . . (the police) don’t show up for two hours,” said Ponzi, a retired lieutenant from the Denver Police Department. “I wouldn’t ever say response times don’t matter, especially if you are talking about community policing, because it’s all about the relationship between the police department and the citizen.”
Slow police response times can take a human toll, said Susan Howley, public policy director at the National Center for Victims of Crime in Washington, D.C.
Crime victims tend to have an urgent need for someone to restore their sense of safety – but a sluggish response means victims are held in limbo for longer.
“They have the sense that they don’t matter,” Howley said. “It may make them less likely for them to cooperate at later stages. It is the first response to victims that will color their view of the entire criminal justice system.”
In late October 2009, two masked men, one armed with a sawed-off shotgun, stormed into Split Endz beauty salon on Milwaukee’s north side and robbed the store.
After demanding purses, jewelry and cash from employees and customers, the men fled the salon, located near the intersection of N. 32nd St. and W. Lisbon Ave.
Soon after, an employee called 911 to report the crime, witnesses said. Even though the armed robbery was listed as a priority 1 call, it took more than 34 minutes for a police squad car to arrive on the scene, department records show.
By then, the perpetrators were long gone.
Police did not make any arrests on the case, according to available records.
“It was shabby police work,” said owner Teresa Morton, who was in the store when it was robbed. “I think they would have caught them if they had gotten here earlier.”
Records show a police squad was dispatched in less than 5 minutes, but didn’t arrive for almost 30 minutes after that.
In the data released to the newspaper, the response time to this call would be listed as 4 minutes and 48 seconds, not the time it actually took for police to get to the scene.
When police did arrive, they said they had been given the wrong address, Morton and other employees said. The initial 911 call came from the Children’s Pantry Daycare, which operates around the corner from Split Endz.
Witnesses interviewed at Split Endz said it took police longer than the time shown in the department’s call history for the robbery.
In fact, Morton remembers that her husband drove from their home in West Bend – at least a 40-minute drive – and arrived at the store before police did.
Morton’s son, Terry Ferguson, said he was upset with the police response despite multiple calls from him and other employees at the store.
“It was something ridiculous,” Ferguson said. “I remember getting really irate with them because it just took too long for a robbery of that type of magnitude. These guys stuck (guns) in my mother’s and sister’s faces. I thought at the most maybe 15 minutes we should have waited for someone to get here.”
That would have been quicker than usual – last year, the average response time for armed robbery calls was just under 18 minutes.
Police did not respond to questions about the armed robbery.
Besides serious crimes, more than a dozen residents interviewed by the Journal Sentinel expressed concern at a lack of police response to non-emergency calls such as drug dealing, gang activity, car break-ins or loud music.
Instead of sending a squad car to the scene of low-priority calls, a police unit staffed mainly by limited-duty officers in each district often takes reports from residents over the phone.
Known as the Differential Police Response Unit, the group was created in 2008 to allow officers more time for high-priority calls and proactive policing, Flynn said.
The number of calls diverted to the differential response unit has more than doubled during the past three years to greater than 47,000 calls last year, police figures show.
Meanwhile, the number of calls that police sent a squad to has dropped by 8% during the same period.
Some city residents say the strategy isn’t working in their neighborhoods.
“It’s not that there’s a slow response, there’s no response,” said Dave Taylor, a retired bus driver who lives on S. 23rd St. He has called police countless times about gangs, public drinking and loud music on his block.
“I’ll call dispatch and later get a call back and they’ll ask ‘Is it still going on?’ Of course it is. What’s the sense of calling if they don’t show up?”
Howley, with the national crime victims group, said residents can lose trust in law enforcement if they feel ignored, even on non-emergency calls.
“You still expect a response,” Howley said. “And lack of response is, at least in the minds of the residents there, creating or adding to an unsafe climate in their community.”
On the north side, Vicki Kopping called police three times last fall to report break-ins to two of her vehicles.
First, someone shot out the window of her pickup truck and tried to steal it in late September in the 8200 block of W. Villard Ave, she said. She called police, but no squad showed up to take a report.
The same thing happened two more times over the next few weeks, and each time there was no police response, although police did take a report on one of the incidents when she went to the district station and complained.
Fed up, Kopping filed a citizen’s complaint with the Fire and Police Commission.
“It makes me think that they just don’t care,” Kopping said. “I’m sick and tired of those guys not showing up. They don’t do anything.”
Police did not respond to questions about any of the specific incidents.
South side resident James Artz called police in May to report that someone had broken into his van and ripped out the radio in the 1600 block of S. 29th St. Instead of sending a squad out, a dispatcher took a police report over the phone. The same thing happened when he reported graffiti to his vehicle in March.
“I understand it’s a petty crime, but enough petty crimes turn into a bigger crime,” said his son, Mike Artz. “We just want our personal safety and our property safe. I don’t see how that will happen when people can commit crimes and the police do not respond or collect evidence.”
Journal Sentinel reporter Gitte Laasby contributed to this report.