Fremont, Calif., Residents Blast Alarm Response Policy

Renee Coe, a 78-year-old Fremont widow, canceled knee surgery because she didn't want to leave her house unattended, knowing that police will no longer cruise by if her burglar alarm goes off. She's so petrified, she's thinking of moving out of town, after living in one of America's safest large cities for 26 years.

Coe was among the 30 people who spoke at Tuesday night's Fremont City Council meeting, about two-thirds of them outraged at a controversial police plan to stop responding to burglar alarms unless they are verified.

Three police chiefs lauded the program during a three-hour public hearing and a few speakers said they understood that police are strapped and should be checking on parolees rather than checking out calls where a cat tripped a motion sensor.

The council took no action. It was the third community meeting on the subject. The controversial policy is set to begin March 20.

Fremont would be the first city in California -- and the 24th city in North America -- to use this system in which police don't respond to burglar alarms unless a neighbor, private security guard or a high-tech video or audio alarm system confirms a burglar has broken in. There is no data available to show that burglaries escalate with verified response.

False alarms are a nationwide epidemic. The average false alarm rate is about 95 percent. Out of 7,000 burglar alarms in Fremont last year, police said 66 were real.

Police Chief Craig Steckler announced his decision Feb. 19 -- a decision that didn't need city council approval. Since then, a number of residents and alarm industry officials have called for community meetings, complaining they weren't consulted.

Michael Salk, vice president for the East Bay Alarm Association, has asked Steckler to delay the policy, or come up with a compromise, such as increasing fines or using a two-call system, in which alarm companies call homeowners at home and on their cell phone before sending a police officer out.

Steckler refuses to opt for those plans. He said higher fines don't cut false alarm rates drastically enough, and it's burdensome for police to keep track of permits and collect fines.

The policy isn't payback for voters not passing Measure V in November, city council members said. Mayor Bob Wasserman said that not generating an annual $22 million a year from that tax, a portion that would have gone to police, certainly didn't help matters.

Wednesday, Steckler said he would have initiated verified response even if the measure had passed because he's severely understaffed and would have rather used the money in other areas. Steckler has 186 officers covering the city of 210,000 residents.

At the meeting, Councilman Dominic Dutra said that not responding to burglar alarms is just one of many casualties of a dwindling city budget.

"I regret a lot of things," he said, listing them off: reducing Sunday library hours, slashing the gang task force, not being able to mow park lawns, and not building a senior center. "I regret the quality of life in our city is being seriously degraded."