Your analysis of your local problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to address the problem.
The following response strategies provide a foundation of ideas for addressing your particular problem. These strategies are drawn from a variety of research studies, police reports, and news articles. Several of these strategies may apply to your community’s problem. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem. Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do: carefully consider who else in your community shares responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it. The responsibility of responding, in some cases, may need to be shifted toward those who have the capacity to implement more effective responses. (For more detailed information on shifting and sharing responsibility, see Response Guide No. 3, Shifting and Sharing Responsibility for Public Safety Problems).
This guide assumes that the alarm industry has the responsibility to improve the quality of its equipment, install devices more accurately, improve its advice to consumers about the suitability of different types of systems for different types of homes and businesses, and increase user knowledge of its products. The responses described below have some potential to reduce false alarm calls. Police policies that stimulate the alarm industry to improve its products’ overall reliability are strongly preferred so as to minimize the burden on police in the effort to reduce the incidence of false burglar alarms.
† Audio intrusion detection technology relies on sensors that, when activated, transmit a signal to the alarm company whereby an operator listens to live audio from the location and decides whether to notify the police.
†† London’s Metropolitan Police Service (2006) found that audio verification false alarm rates were 80 percent. Several cities in the United States, including Fremont (California), Salt Lake City, and Burien (Washington), have also examined audio verification versus visual/video verification and found significant false alarm rates for audio monitoring. The Fremont Police Department (2006) found a 96 percent false rate with audio monitoring in an analysis of one year’s worth of audio alarms. The Salt Lake City Police Department (2006) found an 82 percent false rate on audio monitoring over several years, although the number of audio alarms calls was modest. The Burien Police Department (2006) found a 92 percent false rate on audio alarms in its review of nearly seven years of audio calls that were made from the unincorporated areas of King County ,Washington, and 13 contract cities in King County.
††† Private security forces in the United States outnumber sworn police officers by about four to one (Betten and Mervosh 2005). The Private Sector Liaison Committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, collaborating with alarm industry organizations, published guidelines for private security response but noted, “the alarm industry does not support response by other than sworn police officers, except as a final step in an escalating series of sanctions for alarm system abusers or as a supplement to response service provided by local police.” [International Association of Chiefs of Police n.d.(c)].
Cities adopting verified response have found enormous decreases in the number of alarm calls, typically around 90 percent, which improves police response times to other types of calls. In 2000, Salt Lake City, Utah, adopted verified response using visual verification. By significantly reducing the number of calls to which officers needed to respond, the Salt Lake City Police Department gained an equivalent of five full-time officers, decreased the workload of call-takers and dispatchers, and decreased the response time to other calls for service. Area alarm industry representatives cited increased revenues (as a result of the service charge applied for verification) and similar sales levels to those before the verified response policy.21
This approach may be most feasible in more populous areas: jurisdictions with few alarm customers scattered over a large area may have difficulty securing a private resource that can deliver satisfactory and cost-effective response times.22 However, in all likelihood, police in those jurisdictions have long response times to these alarm calls. In cities adopting verified response, insurance companies continue to provide discounts to alarm owners, as it is the monitoring itself, not whether it is done by police or private security, that appears to matter.23 Over the past few years, between 20 and 25 U.S. cities have adopted this approach, and several police agencies in Canada have done so as well.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police (supported by the National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association and the Central Station Alarm Association) recommends an approach to reducing false alarms that includes, among other things, telephone (or other electronic) verification by alarm companies and notification to alarm owners every time their alarm activates.24 The difference between this approach and verified response is that the latter requires the alarm company to make visual or video verification, eliminating the police response to almost all false alarms. Common arguments against using alarm company personnel to verify alarms are that the public expects a police response and police are better trained than private security to respond to such situations.25 In addition, some mass media reports of verified response policies are characterized in a light unfavorable to police, creating the impression that police are providing less effective service.
The majority of police agencies that adopted verified response had to withstand significant resistance from the alarm industry. The alarm industry has defeated verified response proposals in many other cities. Adopting a verified response policy requires an investment in educating political leaders, the public, and interested parties (alarm companies, police unions, and the media) about the costs and benefits of a modified response. It also requires alarm companies’ availability for initial response to alarms.
† Those panic devices police provide to victims of ongoing crimes, such as stalking, may be exempted.
†† False duress calls from cell phones are similar to the problem of false mobile personal-alarm calls. With the advent of E911 Phase 2, which reveals the location of cell phone users calling 911, police agencies will face the dilemma of whether to respond to cell phone hang-up calls to 911. Most of these hang-ups are the result of unintentionally dialing 911. The 911 operator hears no caller and has to decide whether to dispatch an officer. In essence, these are the equivalent of false burglar alarms. For more information about this particular problem, see the POP guide titled Misuse and Abuse of 911.
† The National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association and the False Alarm Reduction Association offer guidance for jurisdictions wishing to draft an ordinance providing sample language, including definitions; registration requirements; duties of users, installers, and monitors; fines; notifications; suspensions; appeals; and reinstatement. Further, the guidance includes checklists for installers and users, and guidelines for setting fines and fees (National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association and the False Alarm Reduction Association 2001).
†† In 2004, the city of Dallas, Texas, spent upwards of $650,000 administering its false alarm-reduction program involving fines and collections (Dallas City Council 2005).
† Calculating lost-opportunity costs might be less difficult for departments engaged in problem-oriented policing. Line officers in these departments proactively address specific crime and disorder problems.
† The Central Station Alarm Association developed a software package, False Alarm Analysis Program, to assist jurisdictions with the cumbersome task of administration. The software creates invoices and bills, tracks payment delinquency, and provides reports that analyze individual alarm users’ false alarm rates and those of customers of individual monitoring companies. The software package also has online training. See www.csaaul.org/faap.htm. However, “off the shelf ” software packages may not suit every jurisdiction’s needs (Kanable 2001).
†† The Charlotte-Mecklenburg (North Carolina) Police Department outsourced the administration and tracking of ordinance enforcement to a private company (Mowrey n.d.). The company launched a media campaign to encourage users to register alarms and also set up a toll-free telephone number to answer questions about the local ordinance (Kanable 2001).
† An evaluation of Memphis, Tennessee’s, Alarm Office found that, while some alarm companies did indeed cancel alarm calls before dispatch, the practice did not have a measurable impact on the overall number of false alarms to which police were required to respond (Forde and Hellman 2004 [PDF] ). Similarly, since Montgomery County, Maryland, enacted its alarm ordinance in 1995, alarm monitoring companies cancelled 24 percent of all requests for dispatch. While this reduced the number of false alarms to which police responded, it also increased dispatchers’ workload (Montgomery County Police Department 2004).
† In 2004, the Los Angeles (California) Police Department restructured its response to burglar alarms by 1) increasing fines, 2) suspending service after two false alarms in a rolling 12-month period, and 3) requiring alarm verification for all calls after suspension. In 2005, these changes reduced the number of alarm calls by about half, led to approximately the same cancellation rate, and required approximately half the number of alarm dispatches (Los Angeles Police Department 2005). The approach requires a significant amount of administrative work, including alarm permitting, false alarm classes, appeals processes, and use of a collection agency for past-due accounts [Los Angeles Police Commission, Alarms Section, Board of Police Commissioners (n.d.)].
† The False Alarm Reduction Association and National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association created guidelines for establishing an alarm users’ awareness school (False Alarm Reduction Association and National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association 2000 [PDF] ).
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