EDITOR’S VIEWPOINT/Sound the alarm
Don’t look now, but you are being robbed. And, don’t be alarmed when I tell you that homeowners and businesses are taking part in the crime. Worse, so are the police, but they only are performing one of the many jobs you hired them for: answering burglar alarms.
An estimated 38 million false alarms are reported every year, costing millions of dollars to cities and counties, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Police Foundation. Milwaukee says responding to false alarms wasted 13,623 personnel hours at a cost of $1.2 million for its city last year. Milwaukee’s Police Department chased 28,346 burglar alarms in 2003, 96 percent of which were false.
Answering false alarms adds insult to the injury suffered by downsized police departments, such as Pittsburgh’s, where 25 percent of its officers were fired in the past three years. Faced with a shortage of funds, closed precincts and fewer police officers, some cities and counties are fighting back and, in some cases, asking the false alarmist to pay a stiff fine.
Indianapolis collected $574,050 last year and expects to collect more this year from false alarms with fines that can reach $100 per occurrence. Armed with a new alarm ordinance and a new computer to track the false calls, the city has seen citations increase from 6,622 in 2001 to more than 9,500 in the first six months of this year.
In January, Seattle passed an ordinance that charges companies $40 a year for the residential burglar alarms they install and sends them a bill for $125 every time the city responds to a false alarm. With 18,000 false alarms estimated for this year, Collier County, Fla., is taking a two-pronged approach to the problem. If cited, a person either pays the fine, which can reach $200, or attends alarm school, which teaches county residents how to prevent false alarms. Ignoring the new ordinance increases the fine to $500.
Even more radical measures are being taken in communities where the false-alarm problem is out of control. Because 99 percent of its alarms are false, starting in July, Boulder, Colo., will not send police to homes or businesses with three or more false alarms in the previous month. And, because calling the police to chase imaginary burglars has become so severe, Los Angeles, Baltimore and Salt Lake City will not respond to alarm systems without verification from a camera or witness.
The alarm system industry is well aware that reform is needed and suggests that higher standards be developed. The false-alarm problem, it says, often can be traced to “user error,” citing poorly trained or even apathetic residents. It also credits alarm companies’ bad record keeping and the effects of low quality systems.
With even more dramatic cuts to police programs in the president’s budget for next year, local governments should begin to apply the pressure on the security industry and its customers to solve the problems. And, as some communities are discovering, what better way than to reach into their pocketbooks. That would set off an alarm they probably would not ignore.