Cities try to rein in costs of false alarms

Police spent $1.5 billion handling such calls in '98


LOS ANGELES - For police chiefs all over the nation these days, the biggest concern is often not drugs, not gangs, not burglars, but burglar alarms.

The problem: The alarms ring ceaselessly, usually without break-ins. According to a Justice Department report last year, police nationwide responded to 38 million burglar alarms in 1998, but up to 98 percent of them were false. These false alarms cost the police about $1.5 billion, the report found, and accounted for 10 percent to 25 percent of all calls to police.

Take Los Angeles. The new police chief, William J. Bratton, who began work here in November, quickly discovered that in 2001 the city's police responded to 127,000 burglar alarm calls, consuming 15 percent of their total time. But 97 percent of the alarms were false. And they resulted in only one arrest.

For a man hired to stop the city's soaring homicide rate, these figures did not look like a good investment of his resources.

So he proposed that police officers stop responding to burglar alarms unless they are verified first as genuine by the property owner or a private security company using a patrol to see whether there are any signs of a break-in such as a broken window or open door. Video monitoring could also be used.

The idea set off a furor. At an emotional City Council meeting Tuesday, Debra Krishel, a resident of Brentwood, said that if the plan were put into practice, "all women and children in Los Angeles will be at extreme danger of being raped, mutilated, maimed and murdered in the luxury of their own homes."

"This is a woman's issue," Krishel said to loud applause.

But at a time when city budgets are facing their deepest deficits in decades, ending false burglar alarms would free up 35,000 police officers all over the nation, the Justice Department report said. Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Eugene, Ore., have recently adopted plans similar to what Los Angeles is debating, and about 30 other cities, from Savannah, Ga., to Seattle, are examining these programs.

"False burglar alarms are a huge national problem, and I'm amazed that it's gone so long without getting the attention it deserves," said Herman Goldstein, professor emeritus of law at the University of Wisconsin, who is the architect of a number of modern policing strategies.

The false alarms are caused by a number of factors, industry officials say. They include pets tripping alarms, inadequate training of customers, dead batteries, faulty installation and cobwebs covering motion detectors.

Under the proposed new system, if an alarm owner or private security company verifies that an alarm is valid, the police will dispatch a car within 15 minutes.

The proposal also offers security companies a chance to make an additional profit by hiring guards and cars to send to verify alarms and then charge customers more for the service.

New York City created a "chronic alarm program" in 1981 to cut down on pointless radio-car runs. Under the program, if police respond to three or more false alarms at a home or business in a three-month period, the precinct commander has the discretion to ignore future alarms until the chronic abuser comes up with a remedy. Police officials said the problem abated quickly after that.

Part of the false-alarm problem, experts say, is caused by private alarm companies selling services and then, in essence, shifting their costs onto the police.

Security companies typically install an alarm system for little or no charge, then require customers to sign up for long-term monthly monitoring fees. As a standard practice, the companies do call customers to make an initial check when an alarm goes off, but often the property owners are not home or unreachable. After that, Goldstein said, all that many alarm companies do is call the local police, who must dispatch a cruiser to the scene.

Chasing false alarms also distracts the police from solving real crimes, he said.

Bratton argues that burglar alarms are an easy profit center for security companies. Out of the average monthly monitoring fee of $30, Bratton said, "their real cost is only $5, leaving the rest for profit."

Alarm companies dispute these contentions, and they have campaigned hard in Los Angeles and other cities against the new system that is known as "verified response."

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