It took emergency dispatchers and Minneapolis police officers about a minute longer on average to respond to top priority 911 calls last year, the first significant rise in at least five years.

The slower times were largely due to a shortage of available officers to take emergency calls, with dispatchers needing an average of 43 seconds longer to place high priority 911 calls with an officer.

The findings come as the Minneapolis Police Department’s size hovers near 800 sworn officers, among its lowest count in at least a decade. Calls for police help climbed, meanwhile, with police dispatches increasing 6 percent last year to 374,253.

A pledge from Mayor Betsy Hodges to hire 100 police officers over the coming year will increase the size of the department, but it’s hard to say by how much. The aging Police Department also faces a wave of retirements from veterans.

“There’s less cops working the streets,” said police union President John Delmonico, putting the department’s size about 790 or 795 officers. That’s down from 912 at the start of 2009.

The 911 calls were measured in three segments, with the city clocking the amount of time a dispatcher spent gathering information from the caller, the time the dispatcher spent finding a police officer to respond to the call and the time it took for the officer to get to the caller. It was during that second segment that calls slowed down last year.

The delays during priority 1 calls — defined as situations with “unstable scenes” in which an imminent threat to personal safety, the loss of property or damage to property exists — meant that an average call took 9 minutes and 14 seconds. The same call took 8 minutes and 33 seconds a year earlier.

Staffing levels

The slowest police response times in the past 10 years were recorded in 2007, according to city statistics, when it took an average 9 minutes and 44 seconds for police to get to top priority calls. The fastest year was a tie between 2009 and 2010, when police responded in a flat 8 minutes.

Those times roughly correspond with peaks and valleys in the department’s overall staffing levels. It had just over 800 sworn officers at the start of 2006 and then saw staff levels rise to 912 at the start of 2009.

In a statement, the department said it’s constantly working to improve and find a balance between response times and the amount of time officers spend on individual 911 calls.

“The MPD is always examining the adjustment of staffing levels to meet the changing demographics of our city,” the e-mailed statement said. “Overall staffing levels are down due to attrition; however the department’s precinct staffing levels have remained fairly consistent.”

Times vary by precinct

The response times varied by precinct, with the fastest times coming from officers on patrol downtown. There, it took an average of 8 minutes and 13 seconds for an officer to respond. The slowest time was on the city’s North Side, with an average response time of 10 minutes and 3 seconds for top-priority calls.

North Side Council Member Blong Yang, who is chairman of the council’s Public Safety Committee, declined to comment Tuesday afternoon.

Lower priority calls were also slower, largely for the same reason, according to the report, called Results Minneapolis.

Priority 2 calls, defined as situations where no immediate threat of harm exists at the scene, took an average of 26 minutes and 35 seconds last year. The year before, it was 21 minutes and 17 seconds. The lowest priority calls took an average of 34 minutes and 32 seconds last year, an increase of about 10 minutes.

The delay in the priority 1 calls looks troubling, but it’s difficult to know if it’s a problem without knowing more about the calls that were included in the study, said Robert McKenna, associate dean in the school of justice studies at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I.

“It doesn’t matter how long it takes police to get to a call if it’s not a call in progress,” he said. “If the perpetrator’s still at the scene, then of course it matters.”

No ‘magic’ staffing number

Hodges, in her State of the City address earlier this month, said the department will hire about 100 officers in the coming year. The incoming officers will help fill the ranks as the department faces a wave of retirements in the coming year, a staffing problem that Chief Janeé Harteau frequently mentions when discussing the department’s future.

Hodges’ spokeswoman Kate Brickman said the department doesn’t have a “magic number” for keeping the city safe.

“Mayor Hodges has confidence in Chief Harteau and the MPD in their efforts to recruit and hire the officers Minneapolis needs,” Brickman said in an e-mail.

As a measure of police performance, response times can be of limited value, said Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum. Since most 911 calls don’t involve an ongoing situation, it doesn’t usually matter if a police officer arrives immediately, he said.

“Generally speaking, police departments don’t measure their calls just on response time,” he said. “It’s one of the factors. What’s more important is what the police do once they get there.”