Research suggests that false burglar alarms result from three main causes:
† One U.K. study found that user error caused about 50 percent of alarm activations (Gill and Hemming 2003).
†† The alarm industry suggests user error accounts for the largest portion of false calls, poor installation is on the decline, and faulty equipment is less of a problem given recent technological advances [International Association of Chiefs of Police n.d.(a)].
These are not the sole causes. Bad weather, alarm monitoring-center mistakes, and alarm line errors also falsely signal a burglar’s presence.8
Commercial properties tend to have even higher false alarm rates than residential properties because more people tend to share responsibility for activating and deactivating the alarm systems, and the systems tend to be more complex. The rate of false alarms for commercial alarm users may be as much as three times higher than the rate of false alarms among residential alarm users.9 Chronic false alarm activations are often due to inadequate employee training or inferior systems that have not been upgraded.
Burglar alarms are intended to prevent burglary and to help police apprehend burglars, which, if done reliably and efficiently, benefits the public at large. If, however, burglar alarms are unreliable or inefficient, the drain on police resources from responding to them may outweigh their benefits. Here we review the evidence of burglar alarms’ contribution to these two worthwhile objectives.
Studies from both the United States and the United Kingdom have shown burglar alarms to be among the most effective burglary-deterrence measures.10 However, a number of other measures that do not impose a substantial burden on police are also effective at preventing burglary. Occupancy, or signs of occupancy, is the biggest deterrent. In addition, closed-circuit television, window bars, barking dogs, nosy neighbors, and motion-activated lights have also been shown to be effective.† For the most part, burglars avoid alarmed premises because easier choices are usually available.11 Given the availability of non-alarmed premises and similarly unprotected targets (such as houses with open garage doors or windows), burglars may be deterred by the mere presence of an alarm company’s window sticker or yard sign.12
Do burglar alarms account for burglary declines in the United States? The U.S. burglary rate has declined steadily and substantially since the early 1980s.13 During the same time, the number of premises with alarms rose, but there is no evidence of a link between the two. During the 1990s through 2004, when alarm ownership experienced a steep rise, other types of crime declined just as sharply as burglary, suggesting that factors other than an increase in the number of alarm systems fueled the burglary decline.
Are alarms an efficient and effective way to catch burglars? Although burglary remains one of the most frequently reported crimes, the clearance rate for U.S. burglaries has remained below 15 percent for many years.14 Clearly, whatever contribution burglar alarms are making to solving burglary cases is modest, at best.
The available research does not provide much support for alarms’ value in catching burglars. One study found that police were more likely to catch burglars in the act on premises without alarms than those with alarm systems.15 Police responses to burglary calls at locations without alarms are typically the result of an eyewitness, such as a neighbor, which is more reliable than an alarm.
Proper installation of alarm systems is essential to prevent false alarms. Photo credit: Bob Morris
Each false alarm requires approximately 20 minutes of police time, usually for two officers. This costs the public hundreds of millions of dollars. In the vast majority of jurisdictions, the cost of responding to false alarms is not recouped through fines. Jurisdictions trying to recoup costs generally omit the lost-opportunity costs, a potentially significant part of the equation.† Typical costs include
† Lost-opportunity costs might include time that police could have spent conducting problem-solving efforts to reduce documented crime and disorder, reducing repeat calls at crime hot spots, and engaging the community in public safety initiatives. These all compete with time spent on chronic false-alarm response.
In addition, in some jurisdictions, officers have sustained injuries or their vehicles have been damaged as the result of traffic accidents while responding to false alarm calls.
As an inducement to buy an alarm system, a number of companies offer “free monitoring services” for the first few months. Many insurance companies offer discounts on insurance premiums to customers with operable alarm systems. These discounts may be as much as 20 percent for commercial customers, and slightly less for residential owners.16 In addition, many police departments offer several “free” false alarms before imposing any fine, even though the cost to respond is significant right from the start. The offers of free monitoring services by alarm companies and discounts from insurers call into question the appropriateness of the current trend in U.S. policing of allowing three or four free false alarms per calendar year, because they provide no up-front incentives to encourage owners to prevent false alarms.
Certain burglary prevention measures have costs only to the owner. Lights, locks, and bars installed by a property owner (if within the fire code) are cost-free to the rest of the community. The individual purchaser bears these costs. On the other hand, alarm systems are not cost-free to the community, especially if up to 98 percent of alarms are false but still require the time and resources of a police response.†
† In 2004, 86 percent of Dallas, Texas, households and businesses (representing the percent of unalarmed premises in the City ) subsidized the police alarm response to the 14 percent of households and businesses that have alarms (Dallas City Council 2005).
Another social cost of burglar alarms is the noise neighbors endure when audible alarms sound, fueling noise complaint calls to the police. Some callers seek to alert the police that a neighboring alarm has been activated. Others merely want the police to stop the noise. In many jurisdictions, legislators have passed time restrictions for audible alarms, limiting them to 15 or 20 minutes and prohibiting extra sounding cycles.††
†† In New South Wales, Australia, the Environmental Protection Authority prohibits the sale of building-intruder alarms produced after September 1997 that sound for more than five minutes or that can automatically reset and sound again, since police and insurance groups have reported that most burglaries are over within five minutes. See www.environment.nsw.gov.au/noise/alarms.htm.
One of the hidden costs of false burglar alarms is that they can distort the proper geographic distribution of police. False burglar alarms do not necessarily concentrate in the same places where crime in general, or burglary in particular, concentrates. Burglary rates are typically much higher in urban areas than in either suburban or rural areas,† and residential burglaries tend to concentrate in and around low-income areas. Yet more affluent areas tend to have burglar alarms.17 In 2004, those at highest risk for burglary had household incomes below $25,000. Those with incomes below $7,500 were at the greatest risk, having twice the risk of households with incomes of $75,000 or more.18 In the United Kingdom, the risk of burglary among those with household income less than £5,000 was twice the national average.19 To the extent that calls-for-service data (which can be heavily skewed by alarm calls) are used to allocate police personnel to different areas, more officers might be assigned where there are a lot of false burglar alarms rather than where there is a lot of crime. No matter where they are assigned, officers spending time responding to false burglar alarms have less time available to attend to other crime problems.
† In 2004, the burglary rate for urban areas was higher than rural or suburban areas: 41.9 burglaries per 1,000 urban households; 27.8 per 1,000 rural households; and 23.2 per suburban households (Catalano 2005 [PDF] ).
So, while alarm systems may have some benefit for alarm owners as part of an overall security package, the question remains whether non-alarm owners in the community should shoulder a share of the cost. If alarm use resulted in enhanced public safety—that is, alarms led to much higher burglar apprehension rates or, ideally, fewer burglaries across an entire jurisdiction—its public value would be more evident. However, the fact that alarm calls are overwhelmingly false and do not contribute substantially to police ability to apprehend burglars makes the underwriting of alarm response by police and entire communities (all taxpayers subsidize police response to alarmed properties) an expensive and inefficient approach to burglary reduction across an entire jurisdiction.
User errors account for a high percentage of false burglar alarms. Photo: Bob Morris
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