Fontana, Calif., Turning to Verified Response Policy

FONTANA - False burglar alarms are a real police problem.

The Fontana Police Department wants to cut down on the number of false burglar alarms by implementing a policy that requires the alarm to be verified before officers respond to homes or businesses. The department commissioned a Cal State San Bernardino study on the issue.

But the alarm industry isn't thrilled about the policy.

Fontana police officers responded to 8,529 burglar alarms between July 2005 and June 2006, resulting in one arrest. About 99 percent of the alarms were false, which drained police resources and cost $255,000 in manpower, police said. That's the equivalent of more than two officers dedicated to chasing false burglar alarms.

"It comes down to are we willing to accept the use of resources the way they're being used or should we be using those resources more efficiently and effectively," said Police Chief Larry Clark.

Starting Oct. 1, any residential or commercial burglary alarm must be verified by the alarm company before police officers are dispatched to the home or business. The companies can verify the alarms by audio, video, private security guards or eyewitnesses. The police have discouraged people from verifying their own alarm.

If it's not verified, a search will be done for any recent burglary reports or suspicious activity at that address. If there were reports within the last 72 hours, two officers will be dispatched. If not, officers will be notified to be on the lookout and can respond to the alarm if time permits.

The new policy benefits the police officers on the streets.

"It'll give them more proactive patrol time," Capt. Alan Hostetter said.

The new policy of verifying burglar alarms will not apply to robbery and panic alarms or medical alerts.

Resident Terri Hawthorn said police should use their time responding to more serious calls.

"If police are using most of their time for false alarms, I think that's a wasted response," she said.

With signs in the front yard and stickers on windows, there's no dispute that burglar alarms are meant to deter and prevent burglaries.

California Alarm Association President Jon Sargent calls the verified response policy a bad one, one that opens up the door to other problems like people choosing to respond to their own alarm system regardless of their safety.

Because the verification process will lead to a delay in police response, Sargent said, that might invite burglars to more places if they know officers may not come right away.

Plus, the policy can lead to more expenses for alarm company customers to upgrade their systems or pay for private security to check the alarms.

"The burden ultimately will be borne by the customers," said Sargent, who is also an industry relations and government affairs representative with ADT Security Services Inc.

He suggested those who have repeated false alarms be required to use verified response.

"When you pass a blanket policy for a city to do verified response for everyone, it punishes the majority of alarm users that don't have false alarms," Sargent said.

He said he wants to meet with the Police Department to discuss alternatives such as enhanced call verification, false alarm fines and greater public education.

A fine system has helped, police said, but the problem still exists.

On the fourth false alarm in a 12-month period, Fontana residents and businesses are fined $63.

Resident Scott Thomas suggested a stiffer penalty for frequent false alarms.

"Three freebies and the fourth one they charge you, that's kind of crazy. I think that's way too much," he said.

He said he feels ADT already verifies the alarm when they call him once the alarm is activated.

"If the alarm is going off, the police need to get out there," he said.

Even if the alarm is not a valid one, there's still value in having the officer in the community, said Dave Simon, Brink's Co. spokesman.

"The deterrent value is stronger if you have police response," he said.

There's a concern the number of burglaries will increase once the new policy is in place.

The number of burglaries reported in Fontana in 2006 was 779, down from 782 in 2005, according to the FBI.

The Cal State study showed verified police response in Salt Lake City has resulted in a 90 percent reduction in the number of alarm calls answered by police officers.

The first full year in 2001, Salt Lake City saw a 1.8 percent burglary increase, the study showed. The following year there was a 12 percent increase in burglaries. In 2003, burglaries there decreased by 6.4 percent.

Fontana's police chief said the data his department reviewed didn't show that the city will become crime ridden. The department plans to review the policy in six months.