Over strenuous objections, the Los Angeles Police Commission approved a special order Tuesday directing officers to stop responding to burglar alarms unless they are verified as genuine by a property owner or private security company.
At the urging of Chief William J. Bratton, commissioners unanimously approved the change, sought for almost a decade by a succession of police leaders. The chief and panel members said the move is necessary because 92% of 136,000 alarm calls annually are false, wasting police time and money.
The policy would not apply to so-called panic alarms, which people must activate. In those cases, police would respond immediately.
Otherwise, verification by the property owner, by the security company or by video monitoring would be required before the LAPD responded on an urgent basis.
Police officers at present treat alarms as non-priority calls, and are allowed an hour to respond. That policy was adopted in 1998 after a similar attempt to restrict alarm response failed. A proposal in 1994 also failed.
"It is 15% of the time we spend on patrol responding to that. That is time I can use for other purposes on directed patrol dealing with more significant crime problems," Bratton said. "Other cities who've implemented" such a policy "have not found it had an adverse effect on their crime problem. It has in fact freed up their resources "
But security companies, among the most generous and influential political contributors, vowed to take the issue to the City Council.
Their representatives packed Tuesday's commission meeting, warning that verification requirements would hurt as many as 300,000 households and businesses in Los Angeles with alarm systems.
Although city permits for 140,000 alarms are in force, industry officials estimated that more than twice that number actually exist.
The council can review the commission decision, but only if two-thirds of its members agree to do so -- a significant political hurdle, observers said. The alarm lobby has hired Cerrell Associates Inc., a high-powered lobbying firm that has long served as a political advisor to some council members, to represent its position. Mayor James K. Hahn has not yet taken a position on the issue, aides said.
Many of those attending the meeting accused the LAPD of leaving them in the lurch, complaining that they cannot afford the high costs of video cameras or guards that would be needed to confirm a burglary. All 29 people who sought to speak Tuesday opposed the proposal. Many security companies had mailed warnings to customers and asked them to inundate City Hall with letters of opposition.
"When a criminal learns you won't respond, that criminal is going to have a field day," said Lois Medlock, a senior citizen with an alarm in South Los Angeles.
False alarms, considered a national problem, are often triggered by faulty equipment, mistakes by employees or homeowners, the wind or even animals. The International Assn. of Chiefs of Police estimates that about $600 million is spent annually in the United States responding to false alarms that use up 6.5 million personnel hours.
Alarm ownership has spiraled, often as police response times have lengthened because of greater demands and fewer resources, authorities said.
Los Angeles Police Lt. Debra Kirk, who oversaw the development of the new policy, said it can't go into effect until 10 business days have passed, giving the council time to review the commission action if it chooses. The commission believes the dispatch policy can be implemented without changing the city ordinance governing alarm users, she said, but the department will also seek to amend the law.
Lessing Gold, an attorney for the alarm industry, said the commission lacks the legal power to make the change without council approval.
George Gunning of U.S. Alarm Systems Inc. and former president of the California Alarm Assn. said: "I think the City Council has much wider concerns than the commission. They'll listen to our clients: the voters of Los Angeles.
Said Bob Harris of Pacific Alarm Systems: "The folks in South-Central can't afford to have video verification at 1,500 to 2,000 bucks a pop, plus the monthly" fee.
Police Commission President Rick Caruso said that the industry has made no real effort to reduce false alarms and that fines have had little impact. "The alarm industry needs to get into gear," he said. "We've been discussing this for months."
Commissioner David Cunningham III agreed. "The reality is: We have to deal with issues of deployment," he said. "We're not taking a vote that says we don't care about your safety."
Under the new policy, verified alarms would become priority calls, which require a response within 15 minutes, police said. Both policies require immediate responses to alarms at firearms businesses.
Los Angeles has tried a plethora of regulatory solutions to the false-alarm problem, including stiffer fines for repeat offenders. That move reduced the false alarm rate to 92% from 98%. But false alarms, Kirk said, remain a substantial drain on a department that is spread thin, with 9,200 officers policing more than 400 square miles.
An alarm permit costs $31. Owners are not charged for the first two false calls in any 12-month period, but are fined $80 for succeeding false alarms.
Police estimate that the city will save the equivalent of $11 million in payroll costs with the new policy, money that can be redirected to other uses. That doesn't take into account the potential loss of $5.5 million in income from false alarm fines and alarm permit fees.
The special order approved Tuesday is similar to one in Salt Lake City, where false alarm calls to police plummeted about 90% practically overnight after an ordinance went into effect in 2000, said Shanna Werner, alarms administrator for the police there.
According to an LAPD report, alarm calls are a low priority in Chicago and New York. Similarly, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department gives such calls low priority except when they are from silent robbery alarms. Long Beach and Beverly Hills police, however, make responses to alarm calls a priority.
Anthony Smith, another past president of the California Alarm Assn., said the Los Angeles Police Commission's action shows no appreciation for the fact that the calls get patrol cars out into neighborhoods, where the police presence is an important crime deterrent.
Alarm company owners said Tuesday that most false alarms come from a handful of problem security firms.
In most cases, security company officials say, the problem is a failure to train property owners in how to operate their systems.
In a letter to the commission, industry officials suggested that verification be adopted only for so-called habitual or chronic false alarm properties. They noted that the City Council in 1994 approved a motion setting up a task force to make recommendations.
Sgt. Christopher Vasquez of the LAPD's North Hollywood Division said officers respond to false alarms practically every day.
"Certainly, our resources our depleted when we respond to any kind of a call," he said.