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

By Daniel B. Wood writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 16, 2003 | Go to article overview

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


Daniel B. Wood writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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). …

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