L.A. residents ready to respond to alarming issue

Times Staff Writer

There are more than 120,000 false burglar alarms every year in Los Angeles. This is the story of one of them.

This particular home security system, a repeat offender, sounded at a house on June Street last summer in Hancock Park, an affluent neighborhood near Wilshire Boulevard about six miles west of downtown Los Angeles.

"I was home that day, and again there was another false alarm," recalls Marc Sweet, who lives nearby.

"Several police cars showed up. The helicopter showed up. The police were out with their shotguns cocked and ready because they believed there was a distress call from the house. They believed someone was in imminent danger. It turned out to be a false alarm."

Because most burglar alarm calls are false -- 92% of the 132,000 calls received annually by the Los Angeles Police Department -- Chief William J. Bratton, with the backing of Mayor James K. Hahn and the city's Police Commission, wants officers to stop wasting time on wild-goose chases and respond only to alarms verified by a homeowner, a business owner or a private security company.

This change, the chief says, will free up 40 officers, and speed up response to genuine burglar alarms from 45 minutes (or not at all) to 15 minutes.

Not so fast, say some members of the Los Angeles City Council, led by Janice Hahn and Wendy Greuel, who voted to reconsider the policy approved earlier this month by the Police Commission. These council members believe important policy changes should be vetted first by the neighborhood councils, established four years ago by City Charter reform.

Today, those who want a say are expected to pack council chambers at City Hall for a joint hearing of two council committees, which will make a recommendation to the full council about whether to implement the proposed policy.

The nays say they are afraid the restricted response would embolden burglars, increase the loss of property and lives and raise, perhaps prohibitively, insurance policies for home and business owners. Besides, repeat false alarms result in fines. And they will ask who will verify that the alarms are genuine when no one is at home?

The yeas argue that false alarms waste precious time, especially in a city with 10,000 officers, which some say is a quarter the size of the force we should have. And some argue equity: Only 6% of the city's residents have home security alarms; the other 94% shouldn't be forced to subsidize them or their private security companies.

Alarm company lobbyists are inundating their customers with letters imploring them to make their cases at City Hall, but some clients have nothing to say.

Shortly before moving into a 5,000-square-foot home on the beach, a family installed an expensive and sophisticated alarm system. But ocean breezes tripped the system, driving the owners nuts, and sending black-and-whites rolling as the police responded to multiple false alarms.

"It was crazy, we just kept getting these false alarms," says the woman who lives there with her husband and kids. "It had to do with our location on the beach where we get a lot of wind," she says. "We tried having it adjusted."

That didn't work. So after a two weeks in the house, they turned it off. That was five years ago, five years without a break-in.

The woman did not want her name or address to be revealed. She doesn't want to invite burglars in. She knows, however, that she's not the only one who no longer uses a pricey alarm system because the wind, the cat, the kids, the window left open, the door left ajar, a Mylar balloon all would set off the system off.

She does not plan to attend the council hearing today, nor do her friends.

However, those who do speak will make their cases in front of one member who has great credibility on the issue.

In May 1987, less than a month before she won the seat she holds today, Councilwoman Ruth Galanter awoke as an intruder stabbed her in the bedroom of her Venice home. She screamed, and as blood gushed from deep wounds to her neck and throat, she blacked out.

"When I came to ... I hit the panic button," she remembers. (Under the proposed policy, police would continue to respond to that type of alarm.) Officers arrived quickly, and because Galanter had been injured so severely, one officer, Debra Kirk, rode with her in the ambulance in case she said something that could be used to apprehend her assailant. (Kirk, now a lieutenant, crafted the proposed police policy and testified in support of it before the council.)

"It wasn't my alarm that saved my life," Galanter says. "It was my neighbors.... My neighbors heard me scream, and they called the police when they heard me screaming."

Galanter says she hasn't made up her mind whether to back the proposal. "The lesson I draw from what happened to me is the most important thing is to have neighbors who look out for each other. If you have an alarm there is a time lag. And, if you only rely on the alarm company, that takes a little while.... I don't know how many people call the police when an alarm goes off."

She is concerned that alarms give some "a false sense of security."

She also worries about the verification requirement. "After all, if somebody broke into your house and the alarm company called and said, 'Is everything all right,' and someone had a gun against your head.... you would say, 'Everything is all right.' "

For her, the debate should focus on enabling the police to respond quickly and "how we can be sure that as a community we are all looking out for each other and not just leaving it to the police department."

As for that false alarm last summer on June Street, Marc Sweet, the neighbor who belongs to the security committee of his homeowners association says, "I can't imagine how much it cost the LAPD to get that helicopter in the air."

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