Most of life is waiting.

Waiting for the rain to stop. Waiting for the workday to begin. Waiting for the police.

That last one — that’s a wait that can stretch out beyond the confines of minutes and seconds.

Police response time in Annapolis — the flip side of waiting for the police — is a few minutes. The city is only seven square miles, and five police officers and a supervisor are on patrol on each shift, with four shifts in every 24 hours.

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So far this year, it took police an average of one minute and 40 seconds to respond to reports of a fight. Call in with concerns about an armed subject, and police will be there in about eight minutes 22 seconds. Homicide? Two minutes and 21 seconds. Shots fired? Four minutes and 54 seconds.

Some of those, the Annapolis Police Department says, are slower than the averages from the first three months of 2021, some are faster. That’s how averages work. Circumstances unique to a week or a day change them, but they even out over time.

So, is Annapolis a safe town? Is the wait for help from the police acceptable?

“I tell everybody that generally, the answer is yes,” said Alderman DaJuan Gay, D-Ward 6. “Annapolis is one of the few places where I can walk outside at 3 a.m. and feel safe wherever I am. That has a lot to do with the culture, but also the police.”

Rick Hutzell: Federal judge tosses challenge to suicide prevention pamphlets in Anne Arundel gun shops. This idea will spread.

Crime, particularly violent crime, plays tricks on your mind. Part of it is the national conversation, part is the lingering effects of high-profile gun violence in recent years.

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The Annapolis Police Department recently unveiled a homicide and gun violence dashboard to provide clarity. Crime tends to be concentrated in low-income neighborhoods and around shopping centers and businesses, incidents the city tracks on an overall incident map.

Crime, though, has little to do with the conversation happening about police in Annapolis right now. How much, city officials want to know, is enough?

This isn’t the discussion that followed the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis three years ago. No, like a lot of things in Maryland’s small-town state capital, this discussion is about who gets to live here.

“It’s a planning question,” said Alderman Ross Arnett, D-Ward 8. “We have all kinds of provisions to plan for development or redevelopment. ... But please tell me how you’re going to handle the increased density. You can’t just put in restaurants everywhere or dense housing everywhere, and not understand and plan for the impacts on our quality of life.”

The debate centers on the Adequate Public Facilities law, a wonky zoning term — is there any other kind? — that sets the standards for coping with the impact of new housing and commercial space in the city. Anyone planning to build shopping centers or housing developments has to share in the cost of additional services and infrastructure that more people and traffic demand.

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When the law was drafted almost 20 years ago, someone inserted this number: 3.2. That’s how many officers Annapolis must have for every 1,000 residents under the law. It was just a budget tool for years, useful in deciding how much money to spend on police.

Then Anne Arundel County Judge Cathy Vitale ruled last year that under the APF law, the city couldn’t just sign off on a proposed redevelopment of the Eastport Shopping Center. If approved, it would add 98 apartments. Annapolis can’t certify that the project meets its obligations under the law because the police department is short of the 128.4 officers set by that 3.2 per capita formula.

“Mitigation” measures such as live video or private security approved in the past aren’t valid because the law doesn’t spell out what is acceptable in place of more officers. Workarounds halted. Planning officials stopped signing off on major developments.

There are fixes in the works. Alderman Rob Savidge, D-Ward 7, is drafting an ordinance that would insert alternatives into the law. But let’s focus on the underlying question. Are there enough police in Annapolis?

During a February council work session, Police Chief Ed Jackson wouldn’t directly answer questions about what he thought. His department has routine responsibilities but also responds to demands unique to a lively seat of state and county government and home to the Naval Academy.

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He’d like more officers to help cope with parades and rallies, protests and Blue Angels shows, boat shows and presidential visits. What chief wouldn’t?

“The police chief in the past has told us his officers are overworked,” Savidge said.

Right now, Annapolis has 110 sworn officers, the term for personnel who carry a gun and make arrests. There’s money in the budget to fund 3.2 for every 1,000 residents in a city that numbers its population at 39,000. But the population is probably closer to 41,000 after three years of COVID migration, and that would require another 7.3 officers.

“I’m saying if that’s not the right ratio, or if that’s not the right measure, just tell us what is the right measure,” Arnett said.

Competition for officers is high among local governments working to replace retirees and officers who no longer wanted the job under the increased accountability that followed the Floyd murder. Annapolis has upped its pay and benefits to attract men and women, but loses officers to departments doing the same thing.

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Arnett said there have been higher numbers of officers; at one point, there were 132. Police numbers can act as a deterrent for some kinds of crimes, he said, but have little impact on preventing the personal disputes that are often the motivating factor in gun violence.

“A lot of our shootings have to do with people who are disrespected by somebody else, or somebody else’s cousin shot their cousin or whatever,” Arnett said. “There’s no way that policing can help other than make them find some other place to shoot at each other.”

Other members of the council think police can do more than patrol and respond. Gay called it “insane” that there’s no police camera at the intersection of President and Madison streets in his ward, an area where there have been homicides, shootings and robberies. Savidge wonders if adding staff trained in social work or conflict resolution might be a better addition than more officers.

A spokesperson for Jackson said additional funding would allow for the creation of specialized units that might focus on the roots of crime.

Fear of crime is a top worry found by local polling. That fear is amplified by social media, which gives weight to half-baked crime journalism. A recently reported shooting turned out to be a man who told officers he’d been shot but later admitted he’d fallen out a window after breaking into a house. There wasn’t a lot of fact-checking in some of the news reports that followed.

“I can’t clean up where junior spilled the baby food because he didn’t spill it,” said Bernie Bennett, a department spokesperson. “I’m not supposed to police inaccurate information.”

Jackson, a veteran of the Baltimore Police Department and academia, said the right thing to do is to hire a consultant and compare Annapolis to similar cities — small state capitals with an institution like the Naval Academy. That appears to be in the works.

One comparison would be Dover, the capital of Delaware. The city has an estimated population of 38,992 residents, and Dover Air Force Base is the home of the Air Mobility Command and the busiest air freight terminal run by the Pentagon. The department has over 103 officers but is authorized for up to 109.

That is an increase of about 10 over the last several years, in part because of population growth but also because Chief Thomas A. Johnson Jr. convinced city leaders to expand the department’s community policing unit, said Master Cpl. Ryan Schmid, a department spokesperson.

“There’s no magic formula. It’s just what’s needed to serve the people,” he said.

As for those response times, there are complaints from the people who live closest to violent crime, and there is some desire for more police.

“I’ve heard complaints about response time in regard to shootings, no question,” said Gay, whose ward includes low-income neighborhoods that suffer some of the highest crime numbers in the city. “When you need to call the police, the city is so small, you can get there in two to three minutes.”

“If we had eight police officers on a shift, that would be helpful. That gives us the opportunity to provide coverage, in particular to high-crime areas.”

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and where we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom.

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