Chasing a 'unicorn' in California. What should be police response time?

An escaped pony dressed as a unicorn led police on an almost four-hour case through Madera, Calif., a reminder of the challenges of real vs. fake 911 calls. 

Officer Justin Perry/CHP Madera/AP
California Highway Patrol officer Mark Cosentino catches a horse with a fake unicorn horn in rural Madera Ranchos after the horse escaped Wednesday. Motorists had reported a unicorn running around on the roadway. It took more than 3 hours to get the suspect into custody.

Some drivers in rural California hesitated to call the police about a road obstruction on Wednesday, perhaps afraid that no one would believe them: A white unicorn was trotting down the street.

A pony – whose owner, Sandra Boos, had dressed it as a unicorn for a photo shoot – escaped twice on Wednesday, and California Highway Patrol (CHP) worked for three-and-a-half hours to recapture the mythical beast, Brittny Mejia reported for the Los Angeles Times. 

"Initially [police] thought it might be somebody out there on drugs, seeing things," CHP spokesman Josh McConnell told the Los Angeles Times. "It was a little unreal to hear calls of a unicorn running around on the roadway."

The highway patrol caught the pony only after nightfall, when a police helicopter used an infra-red camera to find the white pony in an orchard hide-out. Local horse-owner Renee Pardy brought in her steed to help lead the 'unicorn' out, and police returned the animal to its home with only a warning, Fox KTVU reported.

"No injuries were reported but there were several near misses [by cars]. The pony was just lucky," Madera CHP PIO officer Joshua McConnell told Fox KTVU. "No citations were issued in this case, but had the pony been hit by a car, it would have been a different story."

Chasing escaped unicorns may not be part of highway patrol's standard training, but police response time is one measure of the effectiveness of a law-enforcement entity. In this case, response time may have been slowed by questions about credibility of the calls. 

In fact, reports of a unicorn loose in the street might have been interpreted as a false call, or prank.  False 911 calls have been used to draw police resources away from actual crimes underway. "Swatting" calls are prank 911 calls about a terrorist incident designed to draw the local SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team. 

“The FBI looks at these crimes as a public safety issue,” said Kevin Kolbye, an assistant special agent in charge of the FBI Dallas Division in a 2013 report on swatting. “It’s only a matter of time before somebody gets seriously injured as a result of one of these incidents.”

Police dispatchers also often get "butt dials" – unintentional 911 calls that tie up their time.

Brad Herron, head of the communications bureau for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, tells WTSB in Florida that in his county "somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 per year are these types of calls, cellular calls that are hang ups," Herron said. This past year the county got a total of 540,000 911 calls. 

But police staff are then tasked to follow up on all the false 911 calls, in case it was someone who was in distress and couldn't complete the call. 

The time between a 911 call and an appropriate police response has been an issue since the inception of the 911-telephone system, when early efforts to shorten response time resulted in only seconds of improvement, The Christian Science Monitor reported back in 1982. 

More recently, the Economist reported shockingly slow police response times in some of the nation's largest – and most dangerous – cities. One resident called in a burglary in Detroit and waited four hours for police to respond, although the average response time is 56 minutes; New Orleans took an average of 79 minutes to respond to calls. In New York, police responded to emergencies in about five minutes, and in Dallas police took under nine minutes on average. 

Rural residents also express concern about police response times. A remote school in Idaho cited police response times of up to 45 minutes as a partial justification for purchasing rifles and ammunition and training teachers to use them, KBOI 2News reported in May.

"[If something were to happen], we would have a 30-45 minute potential wait time for police to arrive," Garden Valley School District Superintendent Marc Gee told KBOI 2News. "The loss of life would be just enormous."

The Women's Self-Defense Institute, quoting Department of Justice data from 1996, suggested variability in police response time as well:

According to American Police Beat, the average response time for an emergency call is 10 minutes. Atlanta has the worst response time with 11 to 12 minutes and Nashville comes in at a lightning speed of 9 minutes. The Department of Justice, with their statistical prowess, reports that the best response time is 4 minutes and the worst over 1 hour.

The data varies, but it puts into perspective the long chase for an escaped 'unicorn' in rural California. 

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