Nearly 3,000 times a week, somewhere in the City of Angels, a burglar alarm trips, and the security firm monitoring it contacts authorities. Within minutes, a police dispatcher broadcasts a "Code 30" or one of its variants - alerting officers to respond to what is almost certainly nothing at all.
As security systems proliferate in homes and businesses, false alarms are emerging as a costly nuisance for law-enforcement officers here and across the United States.
In Los Angeles, between 95 and 98 percent of some 150,000 alarm calls a year are false - a number that is prompting officials to consider changing how police respond to security alarms.
Although a new plan is "strictly at the proposal stage," the L.A. Police Department may adopt an alarm-response scheme similar to one in Las Vegas, says Lt. Charlie Beck. There, in a cost-cutting measure, police no longer send a patrol car to the scene of an alarm unless they verify that officers are actually needed.
Alarms "might go off if someone doesn't set them right or trips them by mistake," grouses one veteran LAPD officer who asked not to be identified. "They go off if it rains, if it's too dry, if the building settles, if there's an earthquake." Like many streetwise officers, he has come to consider most alarm calls as only one step higher on the priority scale "than a car blocking a driveway."
His superiors agree, but perhaps more tactfully. "Anybody who works a [police car] will tell you that they'll end up going to alarm calls they absolutely feel are false," says Lieutenant Beck, who is investigating the false-alarm situation for the LAPD. The difficulty for the department, Beck notes, is that "our resources are finite.... It's not like we can arbitrarily hire more people."
Indeed, the manpower drain costs the LAPD roughly the equivalent of a small patrol division - 41 statistical robocops working 24 hours a day, 365 days a year - just to determine that no crime of any kind has occurred, says Beck.
LOS ANGELES isn't alone in its concern about the cost of false alarms. In 1996, Rochester, N.Y., police sent officers to more than 22,000 alarm calls, says Capt. Bruce Philpott. Every one took "an average of 20 to 25 minutes" for each of the two officers routinely ordered to respond to such calls. As in Los Angeles, 95 percent or more of the calls were false alarms.
Experts for the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACOP) estimate that false alarms cost police departments as much as $600 million per year. "A major reduction in false-alarm activations could free up as many as 60,000 officers," the IACOP reports.
With 110,000 alarm-system permits issued yearly in Los Angeles and more on the way as systems become less expensive, the problem shows little sign of abating. Alarm-system owners here get two "free" false alarms per year and are charged $80 for each mistaken call thereafter, generating some $4 million per year.
The proposal the LAPD is considering means that - with the exception of so-called "panic" and robbery alarms in which it is likely that a system was activated by someone fearing immediate harm from a crime - LAPD officers would respond to alarms only if one of three general conditions is satisfied: that the alarm company has dispatched someone to the scene who sees evidence of a crime; that the owner or a neighbor verifies the alarm; or that audio, video, or the tripping of multiple zones within an alarm system confirms an initial call.
Alarm companies across the country are cooperating with police departments and groups like the IACOP to find ways to reduce false alarms, but not all are persuaded that a verification policy is in the best interest of the police or the public.
The new policy may "put the property owner at risk because they would probably respond to their alarms [in person] if they couldn't afford [the extra cost] of [private] armed response [services]," says George Gunning of the California Alarm Association.