Salt Lake City suburbs considering tightening alarm policies

Oct. 6, 2008
City officials say alarm companies are taking advantage of taxpayers

COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS -- Burglar-alarm companies are taking advantage of taxpayers by using local police departments to provide their service, according to officials in two east-side suburbs.

But police in Cottonwood Heights and Draper are obligated to provide the service -- responding to alarms -- in the name of public safety.

The problem is, burglar alarms are false 98 percent of the time, according to a video presentation viewed by the Draper City Council last week. Overall, police responding to the alarm calls significantly slows their response times for real crimes, and more criminals get away.

Now both cities are considering tightening their policies to hold the companies and their customers more responsible.

"They would just like to sell the system and sell the police force with it," Cottonwood Heights Mayor Kelvyn Cullimore said of the alarm companies.

Most false alarms occur due to user error, bad weather or things like pets and balloons, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The issue has been discussed in Utah since 1992, and now a team of police officers and alarm company representatives meets monthly to discuss the situation. In that time, the rate of false alarms has decreased from about four per year per alarm to less than one per year, said Bill LaRochelle, president of the Utah Burglar and Fire Alarm Association.

The past two decades also have seen cities like Salt Lake City and West Valley City require private guards to respond to burglar alarms before police are called. That way, armed law enforcers show up only if actual crimes have occurred, said Salt Lake detective Jeff Bedard.

LaRochelle, who makes his living selling alarms for Honeywell, said that policy simply slows police response.

"Obviously, we don't care for it," he said. "By the time the police get out there, what it is is a police report on a burglary. There's no chance of catching anybody."

Cottonwood Heights municipal code states that private guards should be sent to alarms before police are called, but that rule has been ignored, Cottonwood Heights Assistant Police Chief Paul Brenneman told the City Council. The new police force is reviewing all its policies, he said.

Ironically, much public support for the creation of the new Cottonwood Heights Police Department was reaped over dissatisfaction that the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office failed to respond quickly to burglary alarms at a computer store last November. The burglars got away with thousands of dollars in merchandise and have yet to be caught.

The sheriff's office, which used to provide law enforcement for Cottonwood Heights, has a policy of responding to alarms even if it takes several hours, said sheriff's spokesman Lt. Paul Jaroscak.

Draper's municipal code fines alarm users for the third false call in a year and also requires alarm users to be registered with the city. That policy brings in about $40,000 per year but takes the resources of a full-time officer, city finance director Danyce Steck told the council.

Draper Police Chief Mac Connole said the current rules requiring officers to go to the scene of all alarms has never resulted in an arrest. The chief has asked the council to consider charging for the second alarm and even to consider adopting a guard-response policy.

According to a 2006 study sponsored by the Security Industry Alarm Coalition, that would be a bad idea. A telephone survey of Salt Lake residents found that two-thirds of voters disapprove of their city's policy and that 60 percent would vote against a candidate that supported such a rule.

However, the policy had been in effect for almost seven years and most respondents were unaware of it before they were called for the survey.

Bedard said the capital city hasn't seen any negative effects from its guard-response rule.

"The longer this has gone, people have realized that it's a good thing," he said. "It frees up police for people getting beaten up and speeders and that kind of thing."

Cottonwood Heights officials have asked the police department to continue current policies but plan to take another look at the issue in six months. Draper is drafting an ordinance that would change its policies. Before adoption, public hearings will be required.