Dallas Repeals Verified Response Policy

Sep. 12--Ignoring Police Chief David Kunkle's recommendations, the Dallas City Council today repealed its "verified response" burglar alarm policy, meaning police officers will again automatically respond to all commercial alarm calls.

The 11-4 vote came as a majority of council members argued that cops -- not business owners or private security guards who must first verify a sounding alarm's validity before police respond -- should answer alarm calls.

"We've got to be concerned about the policy and the wider message it sends," Mr. Leppert said, noting that guaranteed police response to burglar alarms is one component in helping Dallas expand its tax base, thereby increasing funds available to police. "This is not a policy that allows us to continue to build the city of Dallas."

Chief Kunkle has repeatedly testified before the council that verified response allows him to use scant police resources to respond to more pressing emergencies. Last week, the chief told council members that he knows of no increase in crime attributable to verified response and that more than 97 percent of activated burglar alarms are ultimately ruled false.

"I'm worried about the 2.7 percent that's left ... the citizens -- they're the ones we're going to have to look after," Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway said Wednesday.

"We do not need to verify alarms. We as a city need to have the police to do their jobs. They need to protect our property and our safety," District 8 council member Tennell Atkins added.

Mr. Leppert also argued that funds slated for inclusion in Dallas' 2007-2008 city budget will help hire at least 200 new police officers and a bevy of new equipment that will help accommodate any workload increase verified response's repeal may cause.

Wednesday's vote comes 21 months after the council voted 8-5 to institute verified response for businesses, with then-Mayor Laura Miller arguing, "I believe in the chief. This makes sense."

Between February 2006 and March 2007, Dallas experienced a 45 percent reduction in burglar-alarm calls and directed $1.56 million in manpower costs spent on responding to false alarm calls on other work, according to city staff's briefing to the council. It also notes that fees charged for false alarms decreased by $1.19 million.

Business burglaries declined by 0.6 percent during a one-year period that ended Feb. 28, according to the presentation to the council.

Mayor Pro Tem Elba Garcia decried Wednesday's decision, saying it hurls Dallas back to the situation it found itself in earlier this decade, when most council members agreed that hundreds of police officer work hours were wasted responding to sounding burglar alarms.

"Today's choice is whether we back up our chief of police and the Dallas Police Department and continue to prepare to protect citizens from harm, or we cave in to the alarm industry," Dr. Garcia said.

"It's about the utilization of a scarce resource," District 5 council member Vonciel Jones Hill said. "Verified response has worked the way it was intended to work. It does not make sense to continue to send a scarce resource to false alarms when we have higher priorities."

District 14 council member Angela Hunt later said, "Our police chief helped us use our scarce resources ... to their highest and best use. Why are we taking them off the street? Why are we taking them out of our neighborhoods to cater to false alarms? We should listen to [Chief Kunkle's] guidance and not be swayed by politics."

Dr. Garcia then offered a substitute motion to shelve Wednesday's verified response vote, and task the council's newly constituted Public Safety Committee, of which she is chairwoman, with further studying verified response.

Her motion failed 9-6, and Mr. Leppert called for a vote on the original motion.

Voting to repeal the verified response policy were: Mr. Leppert, Mr. Caraway and council members Jerry Allen, Mr. Atkins, Carolyn Davis, Sheffie Kadane, Linda Koop, Ron Natinsky, Dave Neumann, Mitchell Rasansky and Steve Salazar. In 2005, Ms. Koop and Mr. Salazar voted to implement verified response.

Voting against repealing the policy: Dr. Garcia and council members Pauline Medrano, Ms. Hill and Ms. Hunt.

The council's decision is effective Oct. 1.

About two-dozen people spoke before the council prior to members themselves publicly debating verified response's merits.

Several speakers regaled council members with tales of numerous property break-ins and finding themselves personally responding to their own burglar alarms in the middle of the night.

"It was the greatest thing in this city you could have done for the criminals," said Fred Conwright, who co-owns Two Podners Restaurant in South Dallas.

Mountain Creek resident Dallas Tillman, however, questioned the wisdom of repealing a policy he says stands to benefit fraction of businesses at the expense of the greater public.

"If the chief of police and the Dallas Police Association supports this program, why would the council vote to repeal it? Our police department is paid to protect all citizens, not just a few," Mr. Tillman said.

With verified response's repeal, Mr. Leppert, who took office in June, scored his first major political victory on a contentious item before the council.

As recently as last week, Dr. Garcia said she believed she had enough votes to reaffirm verified response, which Mr. Leppert himself placed on the council's agenda for a vote. But Mr. Leppert effectively lobbied his colleagues as council members who earlier this month remained undecided ultimately supported the verified response repeal.

The repeal is also redemption for a local alarm industry that's relentlessly lobbied council members since verified response became law in Dallas on their watch.

Chris Russell, president of the North Texas Alarm Association, said his organization now wants to form a committee composed of community residents and city officials to explore ways to reduce false alarms. Meanwhile, Mr. Russell, who is primed to become president of the Texas Burglar and Fire Alarm Association, would not say whether the industry will lobby the State Legislature to increase maximum penalties cities may charge for false alarms -- something many city officials on both sides of the verified response debate have advocated.

Therefore, several council members say they don't expect debate over verified response to stop with Wednesday's vote, particularly since some council members also warn that business owners shouldn't expect police to respond more quickly to their alarms than before Dallas' verified response experiment.

"It's not a victory for anybody," Mr. Salazar said. "The time it takes officers to respond will not be cut."

Copyright (c) 2007, The Dallas Morning News Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.