More than nine in 10 burglar alarms received by some local police agencies are false alarms, which some officials say waste taxpayer dollars and law enforcement resources.
Some local cities fine property owners who are responsible for multiple false alarms in the hopes of curbing the activity, according to a Dayton Daily News review of police records. But fines in many cities have not led to large reductions in false alarm calls.
Dayton is one of the latest cities in Ohio to discuss imposing stiffer penalties on repeat offenders.
Dayton police Chief Richard Biehl said he may even push for requiring alarm companies to verify that an alarm is legitimate before they can call police to respond.
“It virtually eliminates false alarms,” he said. “There are departments and jurisdictions that have taken bold steps, like verified response, to contain the demand that is being placed on police service and that is providing no value to the citizens and no value to public safety.”
But some security experts said a better and more practical way to cut down on false alarm calls is to require alarm companies to make an additional call to property owners before contacting police. They claim verified response can be a dangerous and counterproductive strategy.
Tens of thousands of residents and business owners in the region own burglar or panic alarms. Nationwide, an estimated 29 million people have property protected by alarms.
Problem due to user error
Single-family homes with alarm systems are more than 60 percent less likely to be burglarized than similar homes without alarms, according to study by Temple University in Pennsylvania.
Some studies suggest crime declines in neighborhoods as the number of homes with alarms increases.
But most alarm activations are not caused by burglars or other criminal intruders.
Instead, about 80 percent are caused by user errors, and the rest are caused by power outages, bad weather, equipment problems, pets and other non-criminal sources, experts said.
Consequently, local police departments respond to thousands of alarms that were innocently or accidentally triggered.
Across the region, cities employ different approaches to reducing false alarm calls.
Centerville performs a quarterly analysis of alarm calls and sends a letter requesting corrective action to property owners who have more than three calls in a quarter, said John Davis, a Centerville police officer.
Kettering fines property owners for having too many false alarms, and last year the city issued 10 fines, said police Lt. Craig Moore.
Oakwood also fines property owners for having three or more false alarms in a 12-month period, and the city issued 26 invoices in 2012. The ordinance allows the city to bill for actual costs of the response or $50, whichever is more.
In 2012, Oakwood police received 361 alarms, but only two proved to be actual crimes.
Some police officials said responding to false alarms is just part of the job and bogus alarms are not a huge burden on some departments. But other departments have a different view of the activity.
Most alarm calls require a minimum of two police officers to respond, and most calls take between 20 to 30 minutes to resolve, according to local officials. Some departments said it costs $35 or more every time officers are dispatched to handle a false alarm.
False alarms equal 2.5 officers
Dayton Police estimated it received a little less than 7,000 burglar calls in 2012, and about 98 percent of calls were false alarms.
If false alarm calls were completely eliminated, the net gain in time to the police department would equate to about 2.5 additional police officers, Biehl said.
The city has an ordinance that imposes fines on property owners after three non-crime alarms during a 12-month period. After seven false alarms in one year, police will “disconnect” a property, meaning police will no longer respond to alarm calls from that address. Last fall, about 185 properties were “blacklisted.”
But Biehl said the city’s policy has not made a significant dent in the problem, and last fall, he briefed Dayton city commissioners on a proposal to fine property owners after two false alarm calls in a 12-month period, and changing the “disconnect” policy from seven to five false alarm calls.
Biehl said the goal of this change would be to reduce the number of false burglar alarms by half, compared to 2010.
But if that change fails to produce the desired results, Biehl said he may support a verified-response ordinance, which would require alarm companies to first determine if the alarm is legitimate before calling police to respond. Verification comes through using audio or visual technology to identify intruders. Property owners can also pay private security guards to check on their properties to confirm whether an alarm activation is legitimate.
Some U.S. cities that have implemented verified response policies have boasted impressive results.
Salt Lake City police said it saw a 90 percent decline in alarm-related calls for service in the first nine months after switching to verified response. Milwaukee officials said verified response saved 5,331 police hours in the first six months of the policy’s enactment.
Biehl said he likes the idea of verified response because currently police officers essentially provide the security private-sector alarm companies promise to their customers.
“We’ve got to quit pushing the burden onto public resources, particularly at a time of unprecedented declines in public resources,” he said.
The city has not taken action on the proposed ordinance changes, but Biehl said he hopes it will be taken up again later this year.
But Biehl also extended an invitation to representatives from the electronic security industry to provide information about an alternative strategy for reducing false alarm calls.
False alarm calls typically plunge when cities implement “enhanced call verification” policies, which require alarm companies to make two calls instead of one to property owners before they can call police when an alarm is activated, said Glen Mowrey, national law enforcement liaison with the Security Industry Alarm Coalition.
“You’ll get anywhere from a 30 to 40 to 60 percent reduction in alarm calls” in the first year, he said.
Two-call verification is far better than verified response because unlike the latter it does not defeat the point of having an alarm system, said Dan Gurich, president of the Electronic Security Association of Ohio.
“To have to have somebody verify that your home is being broken into before the police department will even respond — at that point, it is too late,” he said.
It also can be dangerous to ask property owners or private security guards to verify an alarm activation, because they could encounter a criminal, experts said.