An American-Statesman analysis of police statistics over the past five years shows that, on average, Austin police respond to more than 80 burglary alarms every day. Nine out of 10 of those are false.The article stressed a point this blog has been making nearly since its inception: That burglar alarms in practice don't actually contribute to solving burglaries:
The high rate of false alarms — most commonly the result of equipment failure or user error — isn’t unusual. Industrywide, false alarms rates of 90 to 99 percent are common.
Large municipal police forces have complained for years that answering tens of thousands of unnecessary calls for service to check out alarms installed and monitored by private companies drains away manpower and diverts their attention from more serious policing — such as genuine burglaries, which are reported about 20 times a day in Austin. While security companies say alarms can deter break-ins and limit their severity, police say they rarely catch criminals thanks to an alarm. ...
And, while the city’s alarm calls trended slowly downward between 2008 and 2012, last year saw an increase in both the number of alarms and percentage that were false. In some parts of the city, especially well-to-do residential neighborhoods, false alarms demanded more police attention than any other type of calls except traffic stops.
Many customers are under the impression that home and business alarms installed and monitored by private companies, which can cost upward of $100 a month, help police nab crooks. “Somehow, the idea has been planted in their heads that we’re going to beam down Star Trek-like and catch the burglar,” said Shanna Werner, alarm coordinator for Salt Lake City.Austin Chief Art Acevedo defended the policy of police responding to burglar alarms but said the department does not keep records on how many arrests result from them. If that's true (and I must say I doubt it), it's because such data would show the policy he's defending is a complete waste of time and resources. In 2007, an internal APD analysis of burglar alarms found that 99% of alarms - well above the 90% estimated by Dexheimer - were false, and just eleven arrests were made based on burglar alarm responses compared to 7,467 burglaries reported in Austin that year. All those arrests were from commercial alarms; no arrests that year resulted from residential alarm calls.
But in truth, police say most burglars are in and out in minutes. And like most departments, Austin treats alarm calls as a low priority — responders use no lights or sirens, and travel at the speed limit. More urgent calls bump alarm calls.
The result: “By the time it’s dispatched, the chance of catching anyone is next to zero,” said Sgt. Robert Hester, a former longtime supervisor in Austin’s burglary unit.
There's no reason to believe Austin PD has gotten more efficient since then. Indeed, wrote Dexheimer, "The department’s efforts [to reduce false alarm calls] have been hampered by a series of weak ordinances and laws that provide little incentive for alarm companies and their customers to cut down on the frequency of false alarms." Dexheimer quoted from a 2012 Urban Institute report on the topic that I hadn't seen before which demonstrates this is a national, systemic problem.
For many years, Grits has argued that one of the best ways to boost patrol coverage without raising taxes to hire ever-more officers would be to implement "verified response," placing the burden on alarm companies to verify a crime has occurred before sending police to investigate. In a town like Austin with one of the lowest clearance rates for burglaries in the country, that would allow police to devote more resources toward actual crime instead of showering subsidies on alarm companies and more affluent neighborhoods. The biggest barrier to this is political: Whenever they're asked to foot more of the burden, alarm companies gin up their customers with inflammatory, misleading propaganda to scare local decision makers into backing off. But if the public really understood the economics of the situation, IMO even alarm company customers should support verified response - at least if the goal is to reduce burglaries and catch burglars.
One more aside: After the Texas Tribune covered a story last year that Dexheimer had broken about Attorney General Greg Abbott drilling a well on his property to avoid mandatory watering restrictions, Eric published a snarky blog post about how the story seemed "familiar" because the Statesman had done it first. So it's hard to resist mentioning that the only online version of the internal APD report referenced in today's Statesman story is posted on Grits' Google drive, much less that this blog beat the Statesman to the punch about the prevalence of burglar alarm calls in affluent areas of town. It'd be nigh impossible to Google this topic without finding those articles. I'm not generally one to fret over credit; indeed, I tend to think the "scoop" is dead. But if media folk are going to grouse about who scooped whom, perhaps they should acknowledge when they're the ones following up on stories somebody else reported first.
See related Grits posts:
- Austin police calls for service flat, handled less effectively by ever more officers
- Austin police staffing "shortage" stems from subsidies to well-off residents
- Austin will raise taxes to hire more cops but still won't investigate more burglaries
- False alarms are the "single greatest waste of law-enforcement resources in America" but political third rail
Cutting police costs? 'Verified response' for alarms gets more benefit from same number of officers
- Smart policies can boost police coverage even in bad economy
- Dallas nixes verified response for commercial burglar alarms
- False burglar alarms drain police resources
- Burglar alarm subsidies harm taxpayers, public safety