Sunday, January 26, 2014

Statesman Newsflash: Burglar alarms almost never catch burglars

Finally covering a topic Grits has been hammering on for years, the Austin Statesman today published a report by Eric Dexheimer regarding wasted police resources spent responding to false burglar alarms, though the article IMO understated the problem. Reported Dexheimer ("Nine times out of ten, a burglar alarm means no crime," Jan. 25):
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 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.
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:
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.

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.
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.

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:


Anonymous said...

After 5 false alarms at a residence, our city (fines) residents $50 per false alarm. The number should be lower, but I'm not (and never will be) King.

The only time I've heard of an alarm resulting in an arrest in the city happened when 2 teenagers made the unfortunate address decision to break in to the Chief of Police's home.

The Chief was only 5 blocks away at 11:45 a.m. when his address goes over dispatch as an alarm call, every Officer on the street is going to respond.

The fact is, the boys were scared off by the alarm and nothing was missing from the home, only the fence and back door were damaged. (which I hope they had to pay for repairs) But when you get that kind of Police response in seconds, you don't get to escape.

The 2 boys were caught and confessed despite having entered by removing boards from the back fence that backs up to a green space. The backdoor was forced open, which set off the alarm.

But when you break into The Chief's house it is going to make far more than just the local news, and those boys got more than their 15 minutes of fame. Since they were juveniles, I assume that is why they don't show up in the county criminal records search.

The also had the bad timing of breaking in only days after the city was named one of the safest in the city. I imagine they got plenty of "peer hazing" upon returning to school with charges of burglary of a habitation that belonged to the Chief of Police and got away with NOTHING but a record. It wasn't even summer, so the boys friends didn't have the summer to forget, it happened while school was in session. Hopefully that scared them out of a life of crime. If you pick a house at random, you never know who lives there.

And at 17, why weren't they in school?? Our county is pretty tough on Truancy! I hope by now they have righted the ship.

Grandmom said...

Why can't an alarm be sent to an individual instead of the police? Maybe people who can afford an alarm could also afford a remote video camera. A loud alarm usually scares off the burglars. A silent one could catch them in the act, but a loud one can alert the neighbors - potential witnesses. The police have no time to answer false alarms due to unreliable systems.

Anonymous said...

You can't stop the criminal so don't even try.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@6:33, APD wants to hire more patrol officers every budget to respond to false alarms but never more detectives to investigate burglaries. The way to "stop the criminal" is to put resources into investigating burglaries and catching them, not subsidizing the alarm companies.

FleaStiff said...

What are you going to do with the cops who will no longer be able to drive around a crime-free area responding to loose-wire alarms? Make them work for a living?

Jardinero1 said...

I work in insurance and it is a statistical fact that monitored burglar alarms are a deterrant to break-ins. Most carriers agree to the extent that they will discount homeowners policies between ten and fifteen percent if the homeowner has a monitored alarm. This does not negate the fact that burglar alarms almost never catch burglars. That may still be true.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Jardinero1, show us the statistical data that proves that, please. If it exists, I've never seen it. All the data I've seen indicates they don't reduce burglaries and in fact divert resources from solving them and other crimes.

FleaStiff said...

How many fake decals exist proclaiming premises are guarded by alarm systems?
Most monitoring is done from several states away and the alarm company monitors know nothing about local jurisdictions.
Fifteen percent off already skyhigh rates will never hurt sales.

Jardinero1 said...

Grits, I did not say that burglar alarms reduce burglaries. I said that they deter burglaries. Not the same thing. Burglaries are shifted to homes without burglar alarms.

Jardinero1 said...

Here is something to chew on:

As if the fact that an insurance company would forfeit premium is not proof in itself.

Anonymous said...

Grits and Jardinero1,

For your info, the Rutgers study cited said their was no displacement to nearby homes.

"In short, a burglar alarm, as a target‐hardening measure of situational crime prevention, not only protects the home without displacing burglary to nearby houses, but, in fact, also provides these other houses with protection from burglars."

Anonymous said...

Could it be that your pets don't like burglar alarms when they are on the prowl?