Alarmed reactions:
Cities still grapple with false-alarm deluge

Property owners in Denver will have to pay a $25 fee if they want police to respond to their burglar alarms, which also must be registered at City Hall under a new city policy that is scheduled to go into effect in February.

The policy is aimed at reducing the expense  estimated at $4 million a year  of having police respond to burglar alarms, which send false signals 95 percent of the time. The new approach will take the place of a fine system that apparently failed to reduce the number of false alarms.

Denver is one of a number of cities whose cops are fed up with responding to time-wasting calls for false alarms, which eat up time that they say could better be spent patrolling neighborhoods or solving crimes, and trigger high-speed, high-adrenaline runs that may easily end in fatal traffic accidents. As this issue of Law Enforcement News went to press, New Orleans was considering an ordinance that would impose stiff penalties on property owners whose alarm systems repeatedly send out false signals.

Police Superintendent Richard Pennington said that 99 percent of the alarm calls in New Orleans are false, and that his understaffed department cannot afford to respond to them, each of which can take up to 30 minutes. “I support swift enactment of a city ordinance that will fine, and fine heavily, those responsible for repeat alarms,” he said recently.

It wouldn’t be the first time New Orleans has grappled with the problem. The City Council adopted an ordinance that meted out fines for owners for false alarms in 1987, but repealed it in 1991, amid problems over who gets the blame for false alarms and difficulties in collecting fines.

Councilman Roy Glapion has proposed an ordinance that would fine owners on the sixth false alarm. The initial $25 fines would increase to $50 after the ninth false alarm, then to $75 for calls 15 to 19. After the 20th false alarm, the owner’s system would be suspended and the problem would have to be corrected before would police respond again.

But Pennington says that proposal gives alarm owners too much slack. He wants an ordinance that imposes steeper fines and an earlier cutoff. “The way they have it now  that you can have 20 false alarms  that’s a joke,” he told The New Orleans Times-Picayune. “The way the law is written now, I’m not satisfied with it at all.”

Larry Preston Williams, a New Orleans security consultant, said putting together ordinances to crack down on false alarms can be as tricky as trying to determine why the alarms go off in the first place.

“First of all, there should be standards for installing and maintaining alarms,” he said. “The burden of proof should first be on the alarm company. Secondly, it’s often difficult to say that there hasn’t been a break-in just because an officer doesn’t see a burglar. A burglar can shake the door and run.”

“It doesn’t make any sense to me that the city would punish crime victims  people who are only trying to protect themselves from rampant crime in their neighborhoods,” said Councilwoman Peggy Wilson, who said she has her own problems with Glapion’s version of the ordinance. “It’s been tried in New Orleans before and it was an absolute mess.”

New Orleans might do well to look at the experience of St. Louis, where a controversial alarm ordinance initially vetoed and then signed by Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. in August 1995 has languished in the courts ever since, awaiting a ruling on its legality. Meanwhile, St. Louis police continue to answer about 50,000 alarm calls a year, 97.9 percent of which turn out to be false, according to Sgt. Michael Fleming, who helped devise the ordinance. [See LEN, Oct. 31, 1995.]

“We still go on them, and probably would do so anyway,” Fleming told Law Enforcement News, adding that a ruling on the issue is expected by the end of the year.

The contested St. Louis ordinance, which was formulated after two years of research and with input from the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police  both of which have been deeply involved in addressing the problems that false alarms pose to police officers  not only provided for fines of up to $50 for each false alarm, but called for a uniform training course and certification program for alarm installers.

It also called for all alarm users to register their systems, and those with repeated false alarms would be subject to having their registration suspended for 90 days. The suspension would be lifted once the problem was fixed.

Black members of the Board of Aldermen opposed the plan, which they said would invite burglaries at homes where a criminal knew an alarm was installed but not yet activated. They also opposed the law’s ban on convicted felons working in the alarm industry, saying that blacks with drug convictions would not be able to seek employment in the field.

Bosley said he took their concerns into account when he vetoed the ordinance, but said he also had concerns that the bill did not consider faulty or badly installed alarm systems and provided no system of inspections.

Matt Wald, legislative director of the NBFAA, estimated that there are probably 3,600 false-alarm ordinances nationwide, although he cautioned that the number is based on “anecdotal tracking” by the trade group. Beginning in January, he said, the association plans to put together a data base on ordinances “and start measuring things like enforcement, effectiveness and compare them with false alarm prevention programs. We want to work them into our proactive program to reduce the number of false alarms out there.”

The centerpiece of that program is a model alarm ordinance based on those in place in several cities that have proved their utility for reducing false alarms. The model, which Wald said includes “everything that works,” contains provisions on issuing permits, proper alarm system operation and maintenance, monitoring procedures, fine schedules for false alarms, appeals processes, and revocation, suspension and reinstatement of alarm permits.

The alarm association worked closely with the IACP’s “Model Cities” program to develop the policy, which was revised last month. Three cities selected as sites for the program substantially reduced the number of false alarms after enacting ordinances that used provisions from the model policy, said Pulyallup, Wash., Police Chief Lockheed Reeder, chairman of the project. In Elgin, Ill., the number was reduced by 40 percent, while in Philadelphia and Bellevue, Wash., the number of false alarms fell by 17 percent and 30 percent, respectively, he said.  

Recently, the project was expanded to five states  Florida, Illinois, Missouri, New York and Washington  where plans to reduce false alarms will be tested. “We’ve identified a law enforcement official in each of the states who will act as a coordinator and get information out to law enforcement. The alarm industry is also choosing coordinators in each state,” Reeder told LEN.

Reeder said one promising area is the development of a data-transfer program that might give dispatchers an indication as to whether the alarm is false or not. “That will preclude [police] from having to pick up and answer a telephone all of the time, which is a real time-burner,” Reeder said.

Wald encouraged municipalities interested in reducing false alarms to contact the IACP or the NBFAA for more information about their efforts. “We don’t feel there’s any need for anybody to be reinventing the wheel out there,” he said. “We are very happy and willing to work with municipalities on this.”


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Published in Law Enforcement News
Nov. 15, 1996.
© 1996, LEN Inc.