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Council Panels Divided Over Blocking Burglar Alarm Policy

The plan approved by the Police Commission would let officers ignore unverified alarms.

January 28, 2003|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

Two City Council panels split Monday on whether to veto a Los Angeles Police Department policy directing officers to stop responding to unverified burglar alarms. The disagreement sets up a possible showdown today when the full council takes up the issue.

But the committees generally agreed that the council should ask the Police Commission to delay implementing the policy for 90 days, which would allow formation of a council task force to recommend other ways of reducing false alarms.

Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who heads the council's Education and Neighborhoods Committee, supported a veto, which would force the Police Commission to delay the policy.

"Clearly what happened in this instance is people overwhelmingly felt this was a decision by the Police Commission to change a major policy ... and the very people impacted were not given an opportunity to voice their concerns," Hahn said.

Under the policy, officers would respond to burglar alarms only if the alarms are verified as genuine by the property owner or a private alarm company. The City Council can veto the policy with a two-thirds majority, although the Police Commission could simply approve it again.

After a lengthy joint public hearing, the council's Public Safety Committee voted 3 to 2 to recommend that the council veto the policy; the Education and Neighborhoods Committee voted 2 to 1 to sustain it.

During testimony, backers of the new policy, including Police Chief William J. Bratton, said an epidemic of violent crime in Los Angeles -- including 22 shootings and eight homicides in an 84-hour period that ended Monday morning -- dictates that police no longer be required to respond to unverified burglar alarms. Last year, 92% of such alarms proved to be false.

LAPD officials told the council members that, while officers were trying to handle the 22 shootings from 6 p.m. Thursday to 6 a.m. Monday, they also had to respond to more than 880 burglary alarm calls. Of those, 97% were false alarms.

"Do I put my officers out chasing the burglary fairy, when 92% of burglar alarms have been false alarms, or do I put them out chasing the crime in this city -- the murders, the robberies, the rapes?" Bratton asked.

He said false alarms represent 15% of all calls for service, diverting officers from real crime calls.

Council members said the task force should look at options, including an increase in fines for false alarms and some mechanism to force alarm companies to reduce false alarms.

The consensus in favor of forming a task force was reached despite warnings by the LAPD that the alarm industry has failed in the past to agree to reforms to reduce alarms. Among other things, the industry has not agreed to disclose the names of alarm subscribers who have not obtained police permits. About 65% of false alarms come from alarms without permits, making it difficult for the city to collect fines, officials said.

Bratton challenged opponents of the policy to cite any major city in which the alarm industry has agreed to reforms that significantly reduce false alarms.

"If you believe in any of their promises, good luck to you," he said. "The idea that 90 days or 180 days are going to lead to a resolution on the part of this industry -- it's not going to happen." Industry officials said they have ideas for ways to cut false alarms by 75%.

Hahn said that even city offices have problems with false alarms. Her three field offices, she said, have had 47 false alarms in the last 18 months. At her Watts office, the alarm went off in error 23 times from July 2001 to December 2002.

She said city officials failed to tell her about the problem so it could be fixed. "I think we have to clean our own house first and foremost," Hahn said.

However, her main concern was that the Police Commission had failed to give the city's network of advisory neighborhood councils a chance to weigh in on the issue.

Council President Alex Padilla said the failure to tell residents shows the need to reform the process of giving residents notice of major decisions, but he does not see that as reason to overturn the policy.

"Not when it comes to people being hurt, being killed on a daily and weekly basis in my district and the city," Padilla said.

The council panels voted after 90 minutes of testimony from the audience of more than 50 people. Most were opposed.

"If they don't come, it's just like open season to us for the robbers," said Nora King, a tenant leader at Nickerson Gardens. "It's like saying, 'Take your time and pick out what you want, because the police aren't coming.' ''

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Times staff writer Matea Gold contributed to this report.

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