Alarm response policies demand sound research

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts. This is especially important when it comes to those involved in developing critical public safety policies, including those related to alarm response and management.

Nearly 10 years ago the Los Angeles Police Department announced they were going to limit or eliminate their agencies response to calls for service initiated by an alarm activation. They put forward their reasons and urged elected officials and the community at large to support their initiative.

They said by eliminating most police response to alarm calls, they would:

  • Save patrol resources and money
  • Allow police to respond to more important crimes
  • Eliminate a special service to a small part of the community
  • End providing public service that was creating a private company profit

We began to do research to affirm the department’s basis for this new policy, and found there was no support for their premise. The LAPD’s own report, along with testimony from a former chief of the department, confirmed that their position was not supported by the facts.

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In general, the community defers to their law enforcement agency because they are responsible for protecting and preserving public safety. We agree with this, but when the issue is public safety, everyone involved in developing and shaping public policy benefits from being fully informed.

Our research included academic studies, FBI Uniform Crime Reports, and reports from the police agency. It also included one of the most in-depth studies of the issue by a task force formed by the city.

A Temple University study found that if every alarm call was deemed false, the net benefit to public safety was positive. The LAPD analyst’s report found that if police response to alarm calls was eliminated completely, there would be no tangible savings of re-deployable patrol resources. This was affirmed by the former chief of police in his statement to the city task force based on his review of the issue for 10 years.

More recent studies by Rutgers University concluded that communities that have electronic security systems installed and monitored have a measurable positive impact on public safety. It also found that this umbrella of enhanced protection extended beyond the protected property and homes or businesses benefitted from their neighbor’s alarm system. The Rutgers study also showed that crime was not displaced or moved from the protected property to another part of the community.

Researchers at the University North Carolina Charlotte found that alarm systems are a proven method of protecting life and property and that measuring effectiveness based on false alarms can be misleading. They recommend the use of an alarm rate determined by dividing the number of alarm calls into the total number of alarmed properties. An accepted standard is an alarm rate of .5, or one police response to an alarm property every two years. This was also the philosophy of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) in late 2001 when they turned their efforts to reducing the number of alarm calls rather than the percentage of calls that are deemed false. This guidance resulted in the development of Enhanced Call Verification (ECV), the practice of contacting an alarm owner on a cell phone when an alarm signal is received by a central station.

In Los Angeles, the task force found that the alarm rate in the city was actually .4, an average of one police response about every three years, below the recommended standard. While the LAPD discontinued monthly reports relating to alarms, they recently stated that alarm calls have been reduced by more than 50 percent, even with an increased number of alarmed properties. Statistically, an LAPD patrol officer now handles less than six alarm calls per year on average. An overall view shows that alarm calls are just over 1 percent of all calls for service to the LAPD.

In general, security systems are installed on high value targets, both residential and commercial. They add a layer of protection to the property that reduces the need for police services, reduce criminal attacks and support the advancement of the quality of life in a community. The task force in Los Angeles found that the use of alarm systems was equal throughout the city regardless of socio-economic factors. One elderly woman from a high-crime area testified before the police commission that she was able to remain in her home only after she had an alarm system installed.

Private alarm companies play an important role in enhancing public safety, delivering the products, technology and expertise to the property owner. These companies must operate profitably, but it is disingenuous and unsupported by the facts to characterize them as profiteers.

The challenge for public safety agencies is to efficiently use the resources they have available to advance their mission of protecting and serving the community. This can only be done if the public agency supports a cooperative and strong relationship with the private sector and the stakeholders, including alarm owners.

Over the past 10 years, LAPD was one of a handful of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies who proposed denigrating or eliminating police response to alarms. Fortunately for the citizens of Los Angeles, the task force produced empirical evidence that indicated this would have a negative impact on public safety and the policy was rejected.

The trend developing now is that municipalities -- drowning in debt from financial mismanagement and a slow economy -- are looking for sources of unencumbered revenue. Alarm owners are a likely target. The proposed increase in fees, fines and taxes disregard the positive contribution that alarms owners make to the community and these increases should not be supported. An analysis of the research and statistics actually supports a tax credit of approximately $300 to an alarm owner who has a security system professional installed, monitored and maintained. If the alarm owner does not act responsibly, generating increased police response, then the agency may apply fines or fees to regain some of that revenue.

Even though the LAPD premise for eliminating alarm response was disproven nearly a decade ago, there are those who still propose policies based on these false tenets. Continued study and research by academic institutions and through the Security Industry Alarm Coalition (SIAC) must be encouraged by those responsible for the development of public safety policy. This will ensure that agencies will not promote policies that denigrate or eliminate reasonable alarm response that have no basis in fact.

About the authors: The Public Safety Technology Forum is an independent think tank encouraging sound research and study of the integration of electronic security systems for the benefit of public safety and security. George P. Gunning is a Senior Fellow and Jerry Lenander is founding director. Both authors are affiliated with the California Alarm Association. Gunning is a former president of the Electronic Security Association (previously known as the National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association).