Maryland county to crackdown on false alarms

Anne Arundel police responded to 22,604 alarms last year, but just 1 percent, or 226, involved a crime.

The rest were an almost criminal waste of time, county officials say.

The Leopold administration hopes to change that ratio -- and stop sapping the Police Department's resources -- with a draft bill expected to be introduced to the County Council on Tuesday that could impose penalties on residents and business owners responsible for repeated false alarms.

Anne Arundel would be one of the last counties in Maryland to enact such legislation, which would levy a fee on homes and businesses that racked up three or more false alarms a year. The penalty would increase based on the number of offenses, though officials did not disclose the amounts.

"False alarm responses to residences and businesses has caused a significant resource drain for the Police Department," said County Executive John R. Leopold, who worked with police and other counties in proposing the measure. "The legislation should provide an effective means at reducing the inordinately high number of false alarms. ... I think action on this issue is long overdue."

Among the biggest culprits in Anne Arundel County were 140 residences and 678 businesses that had more than five false alarms in 2007, said Capt. Thomas Rzepkowski, commander of the Anne Arundel police special services division. Rzepkowksi said one business' alarm produced 42 bogus calls and that 33 businesses had more than 20 calls apiece.

The most among residences was 27, he said.

There were also 1,713 false alarm responses to county schools, 30 such responses to the Board of Education building on Riva Road and 110 false alarm responses to county government facilities.

Brad Shipp, executive director of the Maryland Burglar and Fire Alarm Association, said most false alarms are caused by human errors such as not setting the alarm properly or tripping an alarm by mistake. Poor maintenance of the alarm system and stormy weather can also lead to false alarms.

Big-box retailers, banks and fast-food restaurants are routinely among the biggest offenders, he said.

"You're talking about diverting patrol officers away from legitimate public safety problems," Rzepkowski said, adding that the time an officer spends on a response depends on the size of the building and whether a walk-around is required. "To find out that it's all unnecessary because it was a false alarm is very disheartening."

The draft bill would also require households and businesses to pay a registration fee upon installation of an alarm system, which would allow the county to better track repeat offenders.

Maryland counties with similar legislation in effect assess a first fee of $30 to $50, Shipp said. Registration fees range from $20 to $30, he said.

Baltimore County, which implemented a false alarm fee in 1999, charges a $50 fee for a third offense and as much as a $500 penalty for 14 offenses or more, said Ellen Kobler, deputy director for the Baltimore County Office of Communications. Kobler said the fees will lead to about $533,000 in revenue this year.

Baltimore County had 33,166 alarms last year, of which 1,055 were classified as "not false," said Bill Toohey, a Baltimore County police spokesman.

In Howard County, there were 12,620 false alarms recorded last year. The number of alarms tied to crimes was not available, said Sherry Llewellyn, director of public affairs for the Police Department.

Howard County fees start at $50 for the third offense and climb as high as $1,000 for more than 15 offenses.

Anne Arundel County Council Chairwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, a Severna Park Republican, declined to comment on the local bill until the council discusses it.

"There's a direct financial benefit with fees and penalties, but the real benefit is that it will keep police doing real police work," said Alan R. Friedman, director of government relations for Leopold, who said the county worked closely with other jurisdictions to come up with the draft bill.

"With rising gas prices and the time and effort involved, it's a real savings in cost."

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