In Los Angeles, a move to ignore burglar alarms

City Council has voted to reconsider, but the LAPD decree highlights the toll of false alarms on tight budgets.

Candy Crawford is leaving town on a two-week cruise, but instead of delight over what lies ahead, she's dreading what may happen while she's gone.

"The police are saying they will no longer respond to burglar alarms at my house unless the break-in is verified by a live human being," says Ms. Crawford, who is considering canceling her $30-per-month "monitoring service." The service guarantees only that police will be called if the alarm goes off - not that anyone will show up to halt a burglary. "If no police are going to come check my house, why should I be paying?" she asks.

The complaint comes on the heels of an announcement last week that Los Angeles police will no longer respond to most burglar alarms - a decree that prompted such outrage that the City Council has already voted to reconsider it. Los Angeles police who are wary of false alarms' toll point to statistics: Of 136,000 alarms in 2002, over 133,000 were false - courtesy of pets, cleaning personnel, residents' mistakes, and faulty systems.

"Fifteen percent of the time we spend on patrol [is devoted to] responding to [false alarms]." Chief Bratton said. "That is time I can use for ... dealing with more significant crime problems." The policy does not apply to "panic" alarms. But under the LAPD plan, verification by security-company personnel, property owners, or video monitor would be required before police are sent.

FOR over a decade, the problem has been growing nationwide because of the expanding use of such devices - a demand sparked by rising crime fears, growing elderly populations, and growing urban populations. Yet in every US city, over 98 percent of alarms are false. According to one major study, that amounts to a full-time daily use of 35,000 officers nationwide - and a cost of $1.5 billion.

With the economy sliding, police are scrambling to cut budgets - and false alarms have been a target, from Arizona to Portland, Maine. There, police are cutting back on community policing and mounted patrols to free officers for other calls. Glendale, Ariz., police are cutting back on answering complaints about music, dogs, and parties. Elgin, Ill., police are aiming to install phones in jail cells to save jailers' time.

But the LAPD's burglar-alarm decision struck a raw nerve - as was clear when 120 opponents packed the council chambers Tuesday night. Coming from America's second-largest city, it could prompt others to follow suit, spurring debate over whether such moves will save officers' time - or give burglars one less deterrent.

The debate has moved front and center in Los Angeles partly because new police chief William Bratton is trying to transform the scandal-plagued LAPD amid growing gang and murder problems. The city already has far fewer officers per thousand residents than most other large US cities.

But alarm companies insist they're improving design and installation to minimize false alarms, and that policies like these amount to throwing the baby out with the bath water. "This is very bad policy ... because it is well known that such systems deter crime," says Jerry Lenander, executive director of the Greater Los Angeles Security Alarm Association (GLASAA).

The move also worries some police watchdog groups. "The answer to repeated false alarms is to deal with the alarms and the people who use them, not end the police's involvement in home burglaries," says Harriet McCullough, CEO of Citizen's Alert, a police-watchdog group in Chicago where police are considering new alarm policies.

BUT police spokesmen in Charlotte, N.C., and Salt Lake City - which have implemented new alarm policies - say there's a middle ground, and point to a system of fees and fines, using private companies to track offenses and collect penalties.

"We have been working diligently with police ... for the past five years to help reduce false dispatches and allow cities to recoup the cost of such house calls," says Stan Martin, chair of a false-alarm subcommittee for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "We think this is a better way to go than for normal citizens to switch over to private security, which may not respond with equal fervor to rich and poor neighborhoods."

Several cities have tried similar ideas, but gotten bogged down in administration and enforcement. But, say officials in Charlotte and Salt Lake City, moving such duties out of the precinct saves time and money.

"We felt the best way to tackle the problem was to stick to policing ... and let somebody else track the offenders and gather the fees," says Glen Mowrey, Charlotte's assistant chief of police. The department has seen a dramatic falloff in false alarms for six straight years under the policy.

Likewise, Salt Lake City officials call their three-year-old policy a major success.Under the new ordinance, fees have been increased about $5 more per month on a typical policy (from $24.95 to $29.95).

"We've found that normal homeowners are fine with that. They would rather put the burden back on the alarm companies," says Det. Dwayne Baird. Officials insist the burglary rate has not worsened since instituting the policy. Alarm-company officials say the figures are up dramatically, by as much as 50 percent in some key months.

One key to the success of both the Charlotte and Salt Lake City programs, say observers, is broad involvement in the decision process. Some of the issues are fees, whether such services will ensure a fair distribution of protection in both poor and rich areas, and what each side stands to gain. A Salt Lake City police spokeswoman says the primary alarm provider, ADT, makes more money under the added-fee system.

There is also money to be recovered by large departments that let millions slip away via lax accounting. With a $30 annual fee on systems in Los Angeles, some estimates put the uncollected income at nearly $5 million.

"The city only has 140,000 burglar alarm systems listed on its books but it is likely that nearly 300,000 exist," says Matt Klink, vice president of Cerrell Associates, Inc, a public-affairs firm representing the security-alarm industry. "We feel if we can show how much they have to gain in money ..., they will be more open to changing their policies."

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