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Los Angeles

Thousands of False Burglar Alarm Calls Raise Real Concerns

Security: Response by LAPD taxes its resources, so a police panel looks into a proposal requiring companies to provide guards to first check what triggered calls.

April 09, 2002|JILL LEOVY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Concerned by more than 100,000 false burglar alarm calls each year, the Los Angeles Police Commission will consider a proposal today to make alarm companies shoulder the burden.

False alarms make up about 92% of all the burglar alarm calls that ring into the Los Angeles Police Department yearly. Despite this, officers must check on each of them, a chore that eats up the manpower equivalent of about 80 officers per year.

This impairs response times to real emergencies and annoys officers. They nearly always arrive to find that someone has accidentally triggered the alarm--or that the wind has jiggled a window pane.

"It's crazy what we're doing," said Sgt. Loren Farell of the LAPD's Devonshire Division. "You know what it's like up here in the Valley with the Santa Anas--when it's blowing like crazy, we spend half our day doing code 30s [alarm responses]."

The false alarm burden on police agencies is a national problem, and a number of cities have begun seeking solutions.

Los Angeles has tried a smorgasbord of regulatory solutions in recent years--stiffer penalties for repeat false-alarm offenders, for example.

The efforts are credited with shrinking the false alarm ratio to about 92% of the total, from 98% previously, but a considerable problem remains, said Police Commission Lt. Debra Kirk.

So commission staff are scheduled to recommend a more radical solution: requiring alarm companies to contract with their own armed response companies. Private security guards would then respond to burglar alarms to verify whether the call is legitimate. Only in the case of a real emergency would they notify police. The police would continue to respond to robbery, duress and panic button calls.

The proposal replicates one in Salt Lake City, where false alarm calls to police plummeted by about 90% practically overnight after a new ordinance went into effect, according to Shanna Werner, alarms administrator for the Salt Lake City police.

Tom Szell, western regional vice president for Protection One, the nation's second-largest alarm company, said his firm would oppose such a change in Los Angeles.

"We have so many customers in Los Angeles and there are very limited guard response companies, and we don't want to degrade the service," Szell said.

However, the suggestion that a new city ordinance might require a host of armed response contracts with alarm companies caught the interest of Paul Nelson, chief executive of Quality Security in Salt Lake City.

Nelson said his security business in the Utah capital has grown by about 10% since the city required alarm companies to provide their own response. Hearing that Los Angeles might consider a similar ordinance, Nelson, a former Angeleno, said he would consider moving back.

The Police Commission today will be asked to request that the city attorney explore amendments to the city's alarm code to make the change, and direct the Police Department to draft a policy change. The commission would then revisit the issue.

Kirk noted that some studies have shown that most burglary victims are low-income householders, while alarm systems tend to be more common in higher-income homes. Given that, she asked, "wouldn't we be better off using 80 officers to respond to crimes in progress ... for all the citizens of Los Angeles, not just those with burglar alarms?"

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