Should Police Respond to Alarms? Police Response to Private Burglar Alarms Isn't the Best Use of Public Law Enforcement Resources, Which Are Already Stretched Thin

By Betten, Michael; Mervosh, Mitchell | Security Management, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Should Police Respond to Alarms? Police Response to Private Burglar Alarms Isn't the Best Use of Public Law Enforcement Resources, Which Are Already Stretched Thin


Betten, Michael, Mervosh, Mitchell, Security Management


In response to the high rate of false burglar alarms at homes and businesses, law enforcement agencies around the country are adopting a policy commonly referred to as verified response. It means that criminal activity must be identified by either private security officers or through some type of electronic surveillance before police will dispatch personnel to the scene of an alarm. Since the vast majority of security systems cannot verify criminal incidents electronically, private security will generally be the source of the verification.

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A major concern raised by homeowners, business owners, and local politicians in jurisdictions where this approach has been discussed or adopted is: Will police switching to such a policy increase the level of crime? But a better question is whether police response to private burglar alarms--which generally have a high false-alarm rate--is the best use of public law enforcement personnel, who are already stretched thin.

Consider that in the United States, on average, private security outnumbers law enforcement four to one. Furthermore, law enforcement's responsibility is to the community as a whole. It must make tough choices about where and how to deploy its limited resources.

The arguments against devoting resources to private-alarm response are many. For example, when police do respond to private alarms, they rarely find anything. For example, an editorial in the Los Angeles Times in January of 2003 indicated that the LAPD responded to more than 120,000 alarm activations, but those many calls yielded only one arrest. That story is repeated around the country.

If the community could benefit from law enforcement making apprehensions, then the response to alarm activations could be justified. But what the evidence clearly indicates is that unverified response pulls resources to areas where they are not really needed, which inevitably means that those limited resources have been pulled from areas where they are needed.

The alarm industry would no doubt counter this argument by pointing to statistics about deterrence. For example, the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association (NBFAA) states on its Web site that "Homes without security systems are about three times more likely to be broken into than homes with security systems. Businesses without alarm systems are four and one-half times more likely to be burglarized than commercial locations with electronic security in place." The NBFAA further cites support from 90 percent of police officers who advise that "alarms deter burglary attempts."

The research in support of alarms being a deterrent is overwhelming, and we do not dispute it, but there is little to no evidence to support a police response over a private security response. Quite to the contrary, Paul Cromwell, a prominent criminologist from Wichita State University, illustrates the point with a statement from a burglar, who said that whenever an alarm was activated while he was entering a building, he didn't know whether the police or private security would be the ones to respond. And he didn't care--he only wanted to be gone before they arrived.

Cromwell further found that many burglars avoided alarmed locations and targeted residences or businesses that were not protected. Cromwell quoted a burglar as saying, "Why take a chance? There's lots of places without alarms. Maybe they're bluffing, maybe they ain't."

The National Crime Prevention Institute has likewise long endorsed alarm systems as the best available crime deterrent. This educational institution realizes that most criminals fear alarm systems and prefer to break into an unprotected building, rather than risk capture by a hidden sensor. Nowhere is it stated or even implied that the police must respond for this deterrent effect to apply.

Witnesses are also a deterrent. The crime prevention concept of Neighborhood Watch, implemented in the 1970s by many police agencies and still used today, emphasizes neighbors being more vigilant about "watching out" for one another and calling the police if they see suspicious activity. …

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