California's 14th Largest City Moves toward Non-Response Policy

Burglars may arrive at your home, but the Fremont police may not.

In a first for the state, California's 14th largest city is set to adopt a policy of not responding to residential or commercial burglary alarms unless they're first verified as legitimate -- because about 98.5 percent aren't.

It just costs too much money and time for a department already beset with cuts -- for example, Fremont cops no longer investigate car burglaries or even car thefts. And the department has axed all crime prevention programs.

"This isn't something I want to do," Police Chief Craig Steckler said Thursday. "It goes against the grain of my philosophy of policing, working with the community."

The alarm companies are, well, alarmed, probably in part because -- if Steckler's prediction is correct -- the idea will likely spread to other communities.

"It's an extremely poor decision to implement this policy," said Michael Salk, vice president of the East Bay Alarm Association. He expects the East Bay city will see a rise in break-ins. "The burglar knows there's no threat of the police coming unless they see a patrol car coming up."

There will be exceptions to the no-response policy, which is set to take hold Feb. 18 and does not need city council approval. For example, Steckler said, police will be dispatched if someone manually presses a "panic-button," or if the alarm company sends a security guard first to verify a break-in, or if the set-up is sophisticated enough to have live audio or video feeds to reveal that someone is actually burglarizing a home.

Right now, most alarm systems work like this: Once tripped, the alarm usually sends a signal to the monitoring company, which will call the homeowner and ask for his or her code. If that doesn't work or no one answers, police are sent.

Quick response

Officers respond within an average of 21 minutes with two, single-cop units, and spend an average of 27 minutes checking the grounds, the city's research shows.

Considering that only 66 of every 7,000 alarms set off annually are real, that's a waste of $688,000 in staff time and equipment wear and tear, Steckler says.

And given that the department in 2003 cut 52 positions -- none of which have been restored -- Steckler says it's time to shift resources.

Moreover, only 20 percent of Fremont is wired for alarms, meaning the remaining 80 percent is subsidizing police services for the minority.

A similar program in Salt Lake City helped spawn Fremont's plan. After that city adopted the so-called verified alarm system, it witnessed a 94 percent drop in false alarms.

But Salk of the alarm association claims the "verified" system is flawed and unnecessary. And he points out that Oakland, Los Angeles and Vacaville explored similar plans, but ultimately walked away from them.

Fremont, as do many other cities, already has a schedule of fines for those with multiple false alarm reports. In addition to such financial deterrents, Salk said companies are adopting a second-call policy -- dialing the cell phones of someone responsible for the property before calling police.

And newer systems have many built-in safeguards against false alarms.

Worries expressed

"That's not good," said Steve Nguyen, manager of Aloha Island Jewelry in Fremont, a store that has an alarm system. "I understand the budget cuts, but what about when someone breaks in and it's late at night and you're not there?"

Linda Thompson of Fremont, puzzling over why the police wouldn't automatically show up, had this simple thought while sipping coffee at Starbucks Thursday.

"What's the point of having an alarm anyway?" she said.