Panel Eases False-Alarm Restrictions

Times Staff Writers

The Los Angeles Police Commission relaxed its burglar alarm response policy Tuesday, voting to allow homeowners and businesses two false alarms a year before they must verify a break-in to get a police response.

The 4-1 decision rebuffed Police Chief William J. Bratton, who argued that responding to false burglar alarms wastes police resources, and culminated months of debate over a policy the commission adopted unanimously in January but never implemented.

City officials and residents, reinforced by heavy lobbying from the alarm industry, complained that burglar alarms would be pointless without police support.

After several unsuccessful attempts by officials to amend the commission's original plan, Mayor James K. Hahn last week proposed the compromise "two strikes" policy. As approved Tuesday, the policy allows property owners two false alarms a year. But as a deterrent the city will impose a $95 fine for the first false alarm, with the fine growing by $50 for each subsequent false alarm.

Hahn applauded the commission vote, saying that the policy struck a necessary balance between "the need to maximize the use of our scarce police resources while addressing community concerns about LAPD's response to burglar alarms."

Outgoing Commission President Rick Caruso, who stuck with Bratton and cast the only dissenting vote, expressed disappointment with the outcome and the process. He chided the commission for what he said was its lack of deliberation on the Hahn plan.

"I don't think they know what they adopted," Caruso said. "This is something that with the original policy we debated for six months. Now you got this policy and from a technology standpoint, you don't know if it's going to work. From a liability standpoint you might be exposing the city to millions of dollars in liability. It's bad politics."

Councilwoman Janice Hahn, the mayor's sister, who has been a leading opponent of the commission's hard-line response policy since it was adopted in January, concurred with the mayor.

"When police officers respond to alarms, even if they are false, you are not taking police officers off the streets. What you are doing is putting them in neighborhoods, you're putting them in business districts," she said. "Most community people don't think that's a waste of resources to have police officers driving up and down your street."

Using Revenue

She added that the additional revenue generated by false-alarm fines should be put into the Police Department for use on technology and DNA lab work that was not funded in the city budget.

False alarms often are triggered by faulty equipment, human error, animals or the wind. 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.

LAPD officers responded to 123,587 burglar alarms last year, according to the Police Commission, which is charged with enforcing the city's alarm ordinance. Of those, 106,640 were false. The trend has more or less held this year, with 96% of the 38,479 alarms through April determined to be false.

With the new policy, the mayor's office predicted that responses to false alarms would be reduced by about 55%.

The LAPD estimated that officers still would respond to more than 50,000 false alarms annually. Even with a "two strikes" policy, about 95 officers would be needed to respond to alarms full time, Bratton told commissioners.

That would take officers away from patrols around parks, schools or other high-priority assignments in the department's 18 divisions, he said.

While indicating concern about "the resource issue," the majority of commissioners expressed faith in the mayor's plan to track and punish chronic alarm abusers, whether alarm companies or customers. They also acknowledged fear of a public backlash.

Commissioner Alan Skobin, who was attending his first meeting since being appointed to the commission last month, said that after sampling public opinion he could not support the commission's original plan.

"I don't believe there's the depth of community support for this [earlier] plan, but instead it's actually [generated] anger and hostility toward the department," Skobin said. "We've asked the public to accept in one bite more than they are willing to accept."

Commissioner David Cunningham Jr., who is expected to succeed Caruso as commission president next week, said he was inclined to vote with the majority after hearing Skobin's arguments.

Earlier, he raised concerns about additional costs of the Hahn proposal as well as potential legal exposure.

Commissioner Rose Ochi called the mayor's proposal "much more comprehensive," citing the fines for false alarms and requirements that alarm companies install systems only when a property owner has a permit for an alarm.

Lengthy Dispute

As far back as the late 1960s, LAPD officials studied the problem of false alarms draining police resources. About 1983, a similar debate led to new fines against L.A. property owners for false alarms. In 1989, L.A. city officials cited ongoing problems.

By 1994, the City Council entered into a protracted dispute with alarm companies. A verification measure died, but penalties for false alarms were tightened.

In 1998, then-LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks tried to face down the alarm lobby over the same issue, and lost. The proposal was again ignited under his interim successor, Martin Pomeroy.

Bratton picked up that baton last fall and quickly endorsed the issue that was being championed by Caruso. In January the commission approved the policy of not responding to unverified alarms. Almost immediately the decision sparked an outcry among City Council members and the alarm industry. Within a week the council voted to take up the issue, citing a lack of input from neighborhood councils and residents.

The issue pitted commissioners and police officials against council members, a coalition of private alarm companies and a hastily assembled contingent of neighborhood advisory panels and business owners.

The council did not veto the alarm policy. Instead it established a burglar alarm task force, consisting of citizens, city officials and alarm industry representatives. That task force produced dozens of recommendations, including permitting three false alarms before a property owner needed to verify a police response.

That "three strikes" policy was rebuffed by the commission last month. But the panel left open the opportunity to challenge it by delaying final implementation at Hahn's request.

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