Monday, April 25, 2011

False alarms are the "single greatest waste of law enforcement resources" in America, but political third rail

Dallas mayoral candidate and former Dallas police chief David Kunkle told the Dallas Observer that "verified response" for private burglar alarms is "good public policy and bad politics." He won't support the idea, not because he doesn't think it's a good one, but because he fears a tuff-on-crime backlash during a contested mayoral campaign. While Kunkle was police chief, Dallas briefly implemented verified response for business burglar alarms. As Merten wrote at the time, "The number of false alarms is staggering -- 97 percent -- and Kunkle compared it to having a car that would only start three times out of 100 and on those three times, it would take so long that you’d miss your appointments." That's about right: It's why Grits has repeatedly argued for sending the clunker to the junk heap.

Dallas originally considered verified response for residential alarms as well, which is where the really big savings would come. But alarm companies rallied their customers to preserve the subsidy, and ultimately those companies and their customers convinced the City Council to reverse course on commercial alarms as well. Merten notes that the Dallas City Council repealed the program one week after Chief Kunkle gave them a presentation urging its continuation, and I was able to locate that briefing (pdf) online. Here are some of the data the Chief used at the time to argue for the program:
  • In 2004 the Police Department received almost 62,000 burglar alarms
  • Of these, 97.2% or about 60,100 were false
  • Responding to these alarms required the time of approximately 45 Dallas Police officers
  • This false alarm rate was consistent with findings across the nation
  • In Dallas, 86% of the citizens and businesses without alarms are subsidizing alarm responses for 14% who have alarms
  • False alarm dispatches are the single greatest waste of law enforcement resources in the U.S.
  • 2004 police response time for priority 3 calls was about 32 minutes
In the first year after implementation, business burglaries in Dallas declined by about .6%, according to Kunkle's briefing, meaning in aggregate the effect on business burglaries was a wash. However, DPD responded to 25,949 fewer alarms, or a 45% decrease, freeing up the equivalent of 24 full-time officers to focus on actual crimes. Given that result, with so many departments cutting officers, you'd think these days more cities would be leaping to implement verified response to maintain levels of police coverage with fewer cops on patrol.

But as Kunkle says, this is an instance where tuff-on-crime politics interferes with good public policy and common sense. The small minority being subsidized by police responses to alarms are extremely vocal and well-organized by alarm companies, who have lists with contact info of concerned customers that would be the envy of any political consultant. Plus, those with alarms almost by definition are relatively wealthier - after all, they got an alarm because they have stuff to steal - and therefore also more politically influential. By contrast, the 86% of Dallasites without burglar alarms who're footing most of the bill are unorganized, unaware of the subsidy, and may not even perceive they have a dog in the fight.

That calculus may and should change in an era of budget cuts and law-enforcement layoffs. Verified response would allow agencies to reduce their number of officers without reducing meaningful police coverage. And all the sky-is-falling rhetoric never seems to pan out as predicted in cities where verified response is implemented. I hear many, many politicians talk about cutting "waste" in government, so why are so many too cowardly to confront the "single greatest waste of law enforcement resources in the U.S."?


Swede said...

Nice work. Reposted

Hook Em Horns said...

"He won't support the idea, not because he doesn't think it's a good one, but because he fears a tuff-on-crime backlash during a contested mayoral campaign."

Because people in Texas, all of us, are DUMB on crime. We have bought into this insanity that more police, more alarms, more jails, more prisons, more felonies...more crime bullshit makes us safer. I implore anyone to PROVE that crime has dropped with this insanity.

The problem is an illiterate electorate that BELIEVES this nonsense and a legislature that is content to keep it up for a myriad of reasons, mostly lining the pockets of the private prison industry and a massive sex offender industry to "KEEP US SAFE."

Unknown said...

Would you make the same comments if we could show you that there are other effective ways to curtail police responses to alarm systems without resorting to verified response? Other best practices can reduce alarm dispatches by up to 90% without verified response. They are working throughout the U.S.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

davidm, if you can "show" that, why don't you?

MailDeadDrop said...

If the commercial alarm verified response "[freed] up the equivalent of 24 full-time officers to focus on actual crimes", then there should have been a measurable impact on the clearance rate of whatever crimes those ethereal 24 police officers worked. Where are the numbers? From what I understand, the clearance rates have *not* improved, which would indicate that the "single greatest waste of law enforcement resources in the U.S." is not the alarm response policy, but rather the police officers themselves...

Bill said...

Wouldn't a false alarm surcharge of 24*$150k (or whatever the fully-burdened cost of an officer is)/60,100, i.e. $59.90 (that's a shockingly reasonable number), solve this problem immediately? Either alarm companies' customers would demand that they implement verified response on their own at a lesser cost, or people would keep their cheap alarm company rates and pay the surcharge in order to have the peace of mind that comes with knowing that a cop actually went by and checked on their place.

Anonymous said...

The public has never objected to paying alarm registration fees or fines for false alarms. What they objected to was ending police response. Dallas was taking in one million dollars a year from alarm fees and fines. Mayor Leppert mentioned the potential loss of revenue as one of many reasons for ending verified response. Best practices in alarm administration call for registration and fines and cutting off response for anyone who abuses police resources.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

8:45, fine, then those with alarms should pay the full freight. If false alarms, make up 10% of police calls, say, let those with alarms cover 10% of the overall police budget in fees to the city, ON TOP of what the alarm company makes. Make sure the sum includes officers' future pension obligations as well as pay, supervisors and overhead, etc.. But get rid of the subsidy - those with alarms are diverting scarce police resorues and should pay for the privilege instead of having their privilege subsidized by people with lower incomes.

Bottom line, I think you're wrong that "public has never objected to paying alarm registration fees or fines for false alarms." If people with alarms were charged the actual, full costs for the service they'd howl like scalded cats.

Sandy said...

Most of the real people I know don't have burglar alarms on their homes. I bet most politicians and the deep pockets that support them do. Perhaps that's why everyone still foots the bill for the 14% who actually have these alarm systems in place.

Same old story, just a different toy the masses are buying for the privileged few.

Anonymous said...

I used to be an alarm install technician. And while I know nothing about industry lobbying, I do know that almost all consumer model alarm systems have a verification system. When the alarm goes off, the monitoring company calls your home and can listen in on the panel. They ask you your secret pass-phrase and/or verify your identity. If there is nothing or no noise, then the police are called.
And, motion sensors are pet-friendly and can distinguish between your dog and a person pretty easily- unless your dog weighs over 100 pounds.

This is not new technology. Two-way voice panels have been around for a decade, and anyone who has an alarm system should have one.

What I'm interested in is how many times police were able to detect unrelated crimes as a result of responding. For example, one idiot I know had a system installed in his home where he had a marijuana grow operation. If police ever respond to his home, he's going to be in a lot of trouble.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

9:58, verified response means more than just calling the homeowner first then the cops if they don't answer - that's the current arrangement that's resulting in hundreds of thousands of false alarms. Verified response generally means it's the security company's responsibility to send someone out before calling the cops.

Unknown said...

Part of best practices is Two Call Verification. The alarm monitoring center places calls to two telephone numbers provided by the alarm owner. That significantly cuts the number of police dispatches. Alarm registration and fines for abusers also reduce dispatches. New technology for alarm panels also avoids accidentally tripping the system. All these initiatives work well and preserve police response which taxpayers and the vast majority of police departments consider a core police service.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

davidm, that's what most companies do in Austin now and APD is swamped with false alarm calls.