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A Good Call on Alarms

February 02, 2003

In an 84-hour period that ended last Monday morning, the understaffed Los Angeles Police Department dealt with eight homicides, 22 shootings, 24 burglar calls -- and 856 false burglar alarms. While the city is suffering an epidemic of violent crime, its cops are wasting scarce time and resources chasing the cats, wind, faulty wiring and hundreds of other miscues behind a 92% false-alarm rate.

Last week, a divided City Council upheld a new police policy that only "verified" alarms will merit a response, despite protests from alarm companies and their customers. The new policy will go into effect in 60 days unless a council-appointed task force can come up with a better plan -- something that has eluded other police departments around the country. Fines, permits and "alarm schools," all of which Los Angeles has, haven't worked.

False alarms have dropped dramatically in the handful of cities that have tried verified response. Before dispatching police, these cities require that a homeowner, a neighbor, video personnel or a private patrol check the site for signs of a break-in -- a jimmied door, say, or a busted window.

Most of the 20% of L.A. households that have private alarm systems pay about $30 a month for telephone monitoring only. Their company calls to check each alarm, and if a homeowner or someone else knows the "abort" code, no police are dispatched.

These incidents aren't the problem. What eats up time and resources is when alarm companies call the LAPD because no one is home to give the code.

A few Los Angeles security companies already send private patrols to verify alarms when no one is home. One company estimates that homeowners who don't have this service could add it for $15 more a month. Some of the cost is borne now by the 80% of Los Angeles households without private alarm systems whose taxes subsidize a "private" security system for the other 20%.

By freeing officers from chasing false alarms, the department will be better able to assign patrol cars based on real needs. That means better policing for the entire city.

Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton is not hurting his case for the new policy by continuing to answer alarms for City Council members. People may grumble, but security for high-profile public officials is no frivolous perk, and the homes and offices of the city's elected officials are wired directly to the Police Department.

It's a different story, however, with the chief's refusal to release records of the apparently numerous false-alarm calls. Any system that has as many false alarms as City Councilwoman Janice Hahn reports -- 47 at her three field offices over 18 months -- is hardly doing the job.

Bratton cites privacy and security concerns in refusing to give the figures for the whole council, but he obviously need not list home addresses. Secrecy delays fixing the problems behind these false alarms and distracts from the larger issue of false alarms citywide.

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