As violent crime rates rise in cities throughout the United States, police departments are hard-pressed to meet rising demands on their limited resources. To lift some of the burden on their law-enforcement officers, a few cities took the drastic approach called "verified response," which mandates police only respond to security alarms if someone on the scene can verify a crime. Salt Lake City began its verified response program with an ordinance passed in December 2000. Although these laws are well-intentioned, they do little to make the public feel safer, less to reduce crime and are unnecessary in the face of advances in technology. It is time for a change in city alarm policies.
A recent survey of Salt Lake City voters commissioned by the Alarm Industry Research & Education Foundation, the first ever done on the issue of verified response in a city that followed the policy, found that the law was broadly unpopular. According to the survey, 65 percent believed that police should respond to security alarms without waiting for someone to verify a crime. Seventy-eight percent believed that burglars would be less likely to attempt a break-in if they believed police would definitely respond to an alarm. Tellingly, only 10 percent of registered voters felt any more protected since the ordinance took effect.
The poll, conducted by respected Washington, D.C., polling firm Bisconti Research, also suggested that verified response could discourage businesses from moving to Salt Lake City. Almost three-quarters of business owners surveyed said that, with all other things equal, they would not locate their companies in a city where immediate police response to security alarms wasn't guaranteed. Almost 70 percent of voters said they wouldn't move to a city with verified response, and 60 percent said they'd vote against local candidates who supported the law.
Local police have argued that reducing the number of dispatches to false alarms would free up police to combat more actual crimes. The reality, however, is that Salt Lake City's crime rate jumped after the city implemented verified response. Today, crime is just as prevalent in the city as it was six years ago. There were 1,301 violent crimes in 2000 and 1,283 in 2005. Likewise, there were 15,530 property crimes in 2000 and 15,859 in 2005. At the same time, property crimes for the rest of the country are on the decline.
There are several alternative approaches to reducing false alarm rates. Some require alarms to be registered, while others have increased fines for false alarms. New, more advanced alarm panels also cut back on wasted police dispatches. The alarm industry has now introduced Enhanced Call Verification, a procedure that allows the alarm companies to contact the property owner's cellular phone and other alternate numbers to confirm that an alarm is genuine. Using these methods, some cities have reduced the number of false alarms by up to 70 percent, while ensuring that their citizens can still rely on the police to answer any alarm signal.
Verified response was a worthy experiment with a worthy goal. No one can fault Salt Lake leaders for trying the policy out. But after five years under this law, the crime rate is no lower, the police are no less overworked and the people feel no safer. With few gains to show for its experiment and many alternative options available, it is time for the Salt Lake City Council to strike this law from the books.
About the author: Bill LaRochelle lives in Salt Lake City and works for HSM Electronic Protection Services.