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City Leaders' Alarms Ring Louder for LAPD

A new policy of ignoring unverified calls doesn't apply to elected officials and a few others.

January 31, 2003|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

Despite a new Los Angeles Police Department policy that will end police responses to unverified burglar alarms, the city's elected officials still will receive priority responses when alarms go off at their homes and offices, even if there is no confirmation that someone is breaking in.

The 15 City Council members, City Controller Laura Chick, City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo and Mayor James K. Hahn -- along with schools, city buildings and firearms dealers -- will be exempt from the new policy, which is expected to take effect at the end of March.

The officials need more security to protect them from people who might target them because of the high-profile nature of their jobs, police officials said.

"Because they're the most visible representatives of city government, they should have the benefit of some security system in their homes and offices," said Lt. Debra Kirk of the Police Commission's investigations division, which is responsible for enforcing the alarm policy.

Chief William J. Bratton has championed the new alarm response policy as a way to free up more police patrols, which spend 15% of their time responding to alarms. Last year, 92% of the city's 121,000 alarms were false.

After being flooded with complaints from homeowners and alarm companies, the council decided to review the policy change this week, but failed to muster enough votes to veto it.

There is evidence, meanwhile, that the city is part of the false alarm problem. Three field offices of Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who led the charge to overturn the LAPD's new policy, had 47 false alarms in the last 18 months, Hahn said. At her Watts office alone, the alarm mistakenly went off 23 times between July 2001 and December 2002.

"Before I knew about this, I felt the answer was to go after our chronic offenders," Hahn said. "It may turn out that one of the chronic offenders is the city itself."

Joe Gunn, executive director of the Police Commission, said that only 3% of the 112,000 false alarms in the city last year were at locations exempted from the alarm policy.

This week the commission, on Bratton's instruction, denied a Times request under the California Public Records Act for information about the number of false alarms at the homes and offices of all the city officials, citing privacy and security concerns.

"This is a decision the chief of police made, and he is charged with the security of the public officials," said Gunn.

Unlike other Los Angeles residents, who are fined $95 after a first false alarm, city officials do not have to pay false-alarm fees or the annual alarm permit fee.

Because the city is not supposed to send false-alarm fine notices to exempt locations, Hahn said she did not know about the recurring problems at her offices, which she said she learned of only this month after requesting the information from the Police Commission.

"It's insane for our police officers to respond to a false alarm 23 times in a city building," she said. "At what point was somebody going to be notified?"

Lt. Horace Frank, a spokesman for the LAPD, referred all questions about the matter to the city attorney's office.

Assistant City Atty. Mark Burton, whom the Police Commission consulted about whether to release the information, said he advised the LAPD to release the records unless Bratton thought they would create a security problem for public officials. "The call on this one was the chief's call," Burton said.

The state public records law allows officials to withhold information if there is a greater public interest in keeping that information private. However, James Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Assn., said he does not believe releasing data about the number of false alarms at the homes and offices of city officials would violate their privacy or threaten their security.

The information is especially relevant considering the debate about the new alarm policy, and questions about whether the city is contributing to the problem of false alarms, Ewert said.

"Because there's the potential that city officials are receiving preferred treatment over the general public, and without information to eliminate that possibility, I think the public is naturally going to be suspicious" if the information is not released, Ewert said.

Under the exemption, which existed before the new alarm response policy, the homes and offices of city officials are wired with alarms that ring directly to the Police Department. Those alarms receive a Code 2 -- urgent -- response.

The average police response to burglar alarms at the homes and businesses of the general public, meanwhile, takes about 45 minutes. Under the new policy, LAPD officials said, they will respond to verified alarms within 10 minutes.

Wilmington resident Lucia Moreno-Linares, manager of a local credit union, said it is not fair that she and other businesspeople will not get the same police response as elected officials.

"That just looks funny: You have protection, and we don't," Moreno-Linares said. "I think we as citizens should have the same right, and we should be able to count on the same service. We should find a way where we could all have access to the police when we all need them."

Councilwoman Hahn's field offices are all in buildings that house other city offices. In fact, her Watts office, which had the most false alarms, is in a building with a police substation.

Some bills for false alarms were mistakenly sent to her field offices, Hahn conceded, but were disregarded by the office staff because they knew they did not have to pay them.

"Everyone has to be more accountable on this," she said.

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