The landmark decision by Fremont police three years ago to quit responding to burglar alarms still rankles Junior Moosayar, who stood inside his car accessories shop recently and described a medley of shiny stereos, rims and grilles as a "criminal's dream."
Moosayar's unease led him to fortify his ceiling with metal rails and put up 16 cameras that he can monitor online. He pays guards to show up when his alarm trips. And he responds as well, armed.
Moosayar says he feels less safe, but he admits that every time his alarm has gone off since 2005, no one was actually burglarizing his Junior's Car Stereo. Sometimes, he said, the alarm would sound when buses backed into his roll-down door while picking up passengers at an adjacent train station on Fremont Boulevard.
Moosayar's situation helps explain why Police Chief Craig Steckler - frustrated that 99 percent of alarms in his city were false - made Fremont the first city in the state to stop sending officers to homes and businesses unless an alarm company verifies that an intrusion has occurred.
Steckler says the first three years of "verified response" have gone well, saving the city more than $600,000 a year. He says arrests are up across the board. Taxpayers without alarms, he says, no longer subsidize the 20 percent with alarms.
"The alarm industry claimed people were going to get raped and murdered, but none of it happened," said Steckler, the top cop for 16 years in the Bay Area's fourth most populous city. "The only unfortunate thing is it got advertised around the world that Fremont doesn't respond to burglar alarms."
Burglaries up all over
Alarm industry officials and some residents say criminals have taken advantage, pointing to a rising number of burglaries as a reason no other Bay Area cities have followed Fremont and the few dozen other cities around the country that have adopted verified response.
In the three years before the change, Fremont averaged 1,009 burglaries annually, records show. From 2005 to 2007, the city averaged 1,210 - a 20 percent bump.
"That's kind of what we expected," said ADT Security Services' Jon Sargent, president of the California Alarm Association. He said alarms in Fremont have lost some of their power to deter. But Steckler said the rise in burglaries has nothing to do with the change and is consistent with other cities where police still respond to alarms.
According to the state Department of Justice, 12 of the 14 biggest Bay Area cities experienced rising burglary rates from 2004 to 2005, the year Fremont made its switch. The average jump was 10 percent, with Oakland 29 percent and Hayward 33 percent leading the way. For all cities in Alameda County, the rise was 14 percent.
False burglar alarms, generally caused by user mistakes, have been a national money drain for years. A 2003 report for the U.S. Department of Justice concluded that 94 to 98 percent of burglar alarms were false. Such alarms made up 10 to 25 percent of all police calls for service and cost the public $1.5 billion a year, the report said.
Steckler said he decided to stop responding to unverified calls when Fremont's city manager demanded 20 percent budget cuts from all departments. In 2004, Steckler said, officers responding to several thousand burglar alarms found just two dozen or so real or attempted break-ins - and caught no burglars.
"Most cops go their whole career and never catch a burglary in progress," Steckler said. "You're not going to catch them anyway by responding. You're just going to get an earlier notification that a burglary happened."
The decision shook many residents and the alarm industry. Some companies gave customers the choice of paying extra for private security forces to show up if the firms couldn't tell quickly whether an alarm was false.
In fiscal 2006, Fremont officers responded to 812 false alarms, records show, down from about 6,000 a year before the policy change. Officers still respond to push-button panic alarms at homes and banks, and dispatchers still broadcast alarm calls to officers, who have the discretion to respond if they have time or sense a problem.
A few businesses and sensitive locations are exempt from the verification policy, among them Nader Ayad's Mission Hills Gallery jewelry store. "They told me they will respond to jewelers," Ayad said, smiling.
Residents still have mixed feelings about the change. Linda Brunetti, who lives in Fremont and owns a company there that makes building frames, compared the move to the city's difficulty in paving streets. "Everything they do, they cut corners," she said.
But while sipping coffee at a nearby Starbucks, retired special education counselor Regina Weir said many residents had accepted Steckler's move because it hadn't prompted any high-profile crimes. "People weren't found dead in their house because the police didn't show up," she said.
Weir said she lives on a court with seven houses where alarms routinely sound. Before the change, the neighbors let police deal with it. Now they swap alarm codes and take care of each other.
"We always do it together, in groups," Weir said.
She said she has come to agree with Steckler on alarms, saying, "It's just not the way you want your taxes spent."
As Fremont overhauled its alarm response, other Bay Area cities toughened policies without refusing to respond altogether - an approach that security companies say is preferable because it doesn't punish responsible users.
"Are we ever going to get to zero false alarms? No. Can we drive those numbers down while retaining police response? Yes," said Dave Simon, a spokesman for Brink's.
Some cities now require that alarm monitors make two calls to try to confirm a break-in - the first to the home or business and the second to a contact person.
Most cities fine residents and merchants if they exceed one or two false alarms over a given time.
"We've chosen a different path so we can still provide a service to people who aren't chronic false alarm generators," said police Lt. Robert Weldon of Hayward, which charges fines of $50 to $500 for repeated false alarms.
In Hayward, the number of false burglar alarms was cut from 8,210 in 2005 to 6,309 last year, Weldon said. The city recovered $656,000 in fiscal 2006-2007 because of licensing fees and fines.
Still, Hayward's rate of false burglar alarm calls remains at 97.5 percent, Weldon said.
Larry Gaines, a criminal justice professor at Cal State San Bernardino who has studied verified response for police agencies, said Fremont would be a trendsetter if not for politics.
"When you start thinking about which citizens have alarms, it's your upper class and your upper middle class," Gaines said. "They have a lot of clout with the city councils."
Gaines said alarm users can get a quicker response from private security, because police consider alarm calls to be a low priority. Alarm company officials counter that those private guards can't use lights and sirens and can't make arrests.
Steckler said he doesn't mind that his shift to verified response also affected his own home in the Fremont hills, which was firebombed by a disturbed man in 1998. The chief said his alarm company sent him a form letter after the policy change, saying it could no longer guarantee a police response.
Steckler said he opted to pay the company a $50 fee every time a security guard had to respond to an alarm - an arrangement that he called a bargain.
"I've never had a false alarm," he said.