Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Dallas nixes verified response for commercial burglar alarms

The Dallas City Council earlier this month last year foolishly rejected Police Chief David Kunkle's highly successful initiative to require verification for commercial burglar alarms before sending police to respond. Mayor Tom Leppert pushed the council to vote 10-4 to overturn the nearly two-year old policy, despite the fact that it saved the department money, reduced fines on local businesses and enabled DPD to improve other services, all while burglaries declined.

More than 97% of commercial alarms in Dallas turn out to be false and of those that are real police almost never arrive in time to catch anyone in the act. For home alarms that figure is even higher.

Burglar alarm services sold by private companies are a classic example of "security theater." They make people feel safer but don't make it any less likely your home will be burglarized or that police will catch the person who robbed you.

What's more, the business model schlepps actual costs of providing the service onto taxpayers who pay for the cops who show up and mill around after each alarm goes off. The security company does nothing for their income but install the alarm system and call 911 when it's activated.

Bottom line: 911 is for emergencies and burglar alarms almost never qualify as such, but in many jurisdictions they're the single most common type of police service call.

According to the Dallas News ("Dallas police to respond to business burglar alarms," Sept. 7):

Wednesday's vote comes 21 months after the council voted 8-5 to institute verified response for businesses, with Mayor Laura Miller arguing: "I believe in the chief. This makes sense."

With the repeal, Mr. Leppert, who took office in June, scored his first major political victory on a contentious item before the council.

As recently as last week, Mayor Pro Tem Elba Garcia said she believed she had enough votes to reaffirm verified response, which Mr. Leppert placed on the council's agenda for a vote.

But Mr. Leppert persuaded council colleagues who remained undecided earlier this month to ultimately repeal the policy.

The policy shift also is redemption for a local alarm industry that's relentlessly lobbied council members since verified response became law in Dallas.

Dr. Garcia decried Wednesday's decision, saying it hurls Dallas back to the situation it found itself in earlier this decade, when hundreds of police officer work hours were wasted responding to false burglar alarms.

"Today's choice is whether we back up our chief of police and the Dallas Police Department and continue to prepare to protect citizens from harm, or we cave in to the alarm industry," Dr. Garcia said.

"It's about the utilization of a scarce resource," District 5 council member Vonciel Jones Hill said. "Verified response has worked the way it was intended to work. It does not make sense to continue to send a scarce resource to false alarms when we have higher priorities."

District 14 council member Angela Hunt said: "Our police chief helped us use our scarce resources ... to their highest and best use. Why are we taking them off the street? Why are we taking them out of our neighborhoods to cater to false alarms? We should listen to [Chief Kunkle's] guidance and not be swayed by politics."

Between February 2006 and March 2007, Dallas experienced a 45 percent reduction in burglar alarm calls and redirected $1.56 million in manpower costs previously spent on responding to false alarms to other work, according to the city staff's briefing to the council. It also noted that fees charged for false alarms decreased by $1.19 million.

Business burglaries declined by 0.6 percent during a one-year period that ended Feb. 28, according to the presentation to the council.

Dr. Garcia offered a substitute motion to shelve Wednesday's vote and direct the council's newly constituted Public Safety Committee, of which she is chairwoman, to further study verified response.

But her motion failed, and Mr. Leppert called for a vote on the original motion.

The council's decision is effective Oct. 1.

The Dallas City Council should be going the other direction, requiring verified response for home alarms as well. Instead their decision will reduce police coverage and increase response time for more serious calls. I'm sure the Dallas Council isn't planning to hire more officers to make up the difference.

Mayor Tom Leppert said, "We've got to be concerned about the policy and the wider message it sends." But what message is that, exactly? To me it's basically, "We'd rather make the general public less safe in order to subsidize private alarm companies who profit from selling fear instead of using police resources for fighting crime."

Is that really the message they want to be sending?

CORRECTION: The original post mistakenly said this change was made earlier this month. In fact, Dallas' verfied response ended one year ago and the Dallas News blog post I was reacting to was reporting, instead, on a new proposal by Dallas to ask the Legislature to give cities authority to fine people after the first false alarm. Sorry about the mixup.

UPDATE: A reader sent me data on Salt Lake City's verified alarm system, which appears to work great and save the city a lot of money. According to a handout from the Salt Lake PD I received via email:
The Verified Response ordinance became effective on December 1, 2000. Our department immediately experienced an unprecedented 90% reduction in alarm responses. Past efforts to reduce the volume of false alarms through permits, warnings, fines and suspensions had only a modest effect. Police response to alarms was most effective and efficient when it was first verified that alarm activation was indicative of suspicious activity. Private security guards are ideally suited to make this initial verification. Police continue to respond to human-activated alarms such as robbery, panic and duress which continue to be 99% false.

In the first year, Verified Response freed 8,482 officer hours which could then be redirected to other police priorities and also saved $508,920 in associated personnel costs. ...

Verified Response has been a win-win for our citizens and our department. Due to the low priority of alarm signals, private guard response time to alarm activations has been much quicker than police response. Police have been able to reduce the response time to high priority emergency calls, including panic, robbery and duress alarms, by nearly one minute. Most citizens will pay as little as an additional $5 per month on their monitoring account for guard response, rather than the former $100 false alarm fines. Most importantly, our officers were able to redirect time spent on answering false alarm signals to other public safety concerns.


Soronel Haetir said...

You aren't nearly cynical enough, the reason for this lies directly in the quoted text. They want more false alarm fines.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

That's a REALLY good point, Soronel. Especially because I forgot to mention in the text that the council now wants to increase fines on consumers as an alternative to verification. They're going to the Lege next year to ask them to allow fines after the first false alarm instead of after the third.

Anonymous said...

When the government regulates buying and selling, then the first thing to be bought or sold is...the government.

Taxpayers, as usual, have no representation in this matter and will be stuck with the cost while some private firm gets rich...and uses that money to protect their friends in public office.

Anonymous said...

As retired Texas Ranger Joaquin Jackson said. "There is no place for politics in law enforcemhnt."

Anonymous said...

Texas Jake: Yeah and after he said it it took thirty minutes for everyone to quit laughing so hard they were peeing on themselves and crying hysterically while gasping for breath.
That Ranger Joaquin Jackson was a FUNNY SOB.

123txpublicdefender123 said...

My rule of thumb is to reject whatever position is being put forth by a person saying that we must be concerned about the "message we are sending."

This is just plain stupid. Leave it up to the Dallas City Council to take a police policy that is actually working and repeal it. Nice work.

Anonymous said...

Whys is this YEAR OLD story suddenly news????

Gritsforbreakfast said...

3:02 - see the correction and update.

Anonymous said...

Apart from choosing the right company the Commercial Alarm Systems Installationshould also be made promptly.

Anonymous said...

I can not see what's the point of having panic buttons if you'd be charged a sum? If I were in Jill's place, I would certainly do the same. No one knows the intensity of an emergency unless you place yourself in one's shoe. If they are to set a standard guideline for hitting that panic button, we will lose the real meaning of the term "emergency". The best thing, I believe is to get a more reliable wireless alarms system that is pet-proof to lessen the chance of having false alarms.