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'Security' We Can't Afford

January 13, 2003

The Los Angeles Police Department sends patrol cars out on 136,000 burglar alarm calls a year, and 125,000 -- 92% -- turn out to be false, set off by anything from faulty installation to Santa Ana winds. Fines, consumer education and better alarm technology have whittled the false rate down from 98%, but not enough. Answering 340 false alarms a day is an outrageous waste of officers' time, particularly in a department as understaffed as the LAPD.

So the Police Commission last week decided that, except for human-activated "panic alarms" and alarms at firearms businesses, cops would stop responding to burglar alarms unless someone -- the company that installed the alarm, a private patrol service or a neighbor -- verified that a criminal, not a cat, was afoot. It's a sensible policy and one the City Council should uphold, despite the wail of panic from some security companies.

These companies claim that the new policy would put property and possibly lives at risk in the 8% of the burglary alarm calls that aren't false. What they don't say is that those calls get lost anyway in all the false alarms. The LAPD, like police departments across the country, is so swamped by false alarms that years ago it made responding to all burglar alarm calls a low priority, meaning cops show up not in 15 minutes but within an hour or two.

Under the proposal, however, a verified alarm call would become a priority, requiring police response within 15 minutes. But for private firms to verify those alarms by sending out patrols to check on them is more labor-intensive, meaning less profit for the companies. The few private security firms that use private patrols to verify calls have no complaints; the ones that don't are panicked all right, but about their own wallets.

The majority of private security firms in Los Angeles charge their clients about $30 a month to provide a service that costs them about $5 to deliver. Operators at central stations monitor an estimated 900,000 burglar alarm calls a year by calling the clients. Most of the time, the client tripped the alarm accidentally. The operator alerts the cops only if no one answers or if the person who answers doesn't know the secret abort code. It's the security company, not the taxpayers, that should bear the labor-intensive expense of finding that nine out of 10 of these "screened" calls are false.

Las Vegas and Salt Lake City are among the cities that have initiated verified response policies. Security firms here are misleadingly claiming that burglaries went up in Salt Lake City. Subtract larceny and shoplifting from that crime category and burglaries declined slightly. Response time improved dramatically, and false alarms plummeted by more than 90%.

Security companies have shamefully spooked their customers into calling City Hall, convincing some City Council members to put the policy on hold and shop around for the votes to rescind it. It's time instead to rescind this public subsidy and make the private security industry deliver the extra security it promises.

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