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To err is a fine

Times Staff Writer

On a recent morning while Glenn Geraghty was away, the security alarm at his Watts home went off. When Los Angeles police officers arrived, a neighbor with a key to the house offered a sheepish apology: Geraghty’s dog, Checkers, had pawed open the gate on his cage and tripped the alarm’s motion sensors.

The police left, only to be summoned back hours later when the dog got free a second time.

That should have been the end of it. A city law grants only two false alarms every 12 months. Any more than that and police aren’t required to respond unless someone at the scene verifies that the alarm is real.

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But when Checkers triggered the alarm a third time, the Los Angeles Police Department’s computer system failed to flag Geraghty’s address as a repeat offender, and a 911 dispatcher sent more officers.

That a dog can fool police into chasing a phantom burglar three times in a day underscores LAPD’s long, frustrating history of battling false alarms.

More than three years after taking a tough-love stance on the nearly 110,000 bogus calls it received each year, the department is still struggling to get the upper hand.

The overall number of alarms has dropped, but nearly all are still false.

Obsolete computer technology and understaffing, meanwhile, have left the department as overwhelmed as ever, failing to collect millions of dollars in fines each year from often belligerent home and business owners.

“The system we have now is flawed,” said Lt. Andre Dawson, who oversees a small, frazzled staff in LAPD’s Alarm Division. “It is totally antiquated.”

Los Angeles is a city obsessed with protecting itself. Dozens of companies, with names such as Sentry Tech and Protection One, serve an estimated quarter of a million homes and offices that are equipped with wired locks, secret pass codes and panic buttons. The systems can be valuable crime deterrents for residents, but police complain that they are a tremendous drain on their resources.

The issue came to a head in 2003, when police responded to 109,295 alarm calls -- about 13% of all calls for assistance that year -- and nearly 106,000 of them were false. Police Chief William J. Bratton, already trying to make do with an undersized force, tried to push through a new policy calling for officers to respond to alarms only when there was clear evidence that a break-in was occurring. Too much time and too many resources, Bratton said, were wasted on wild goose chases.

But Angelenos and the security industry erupted in protest, lighting up the phones of City Council members. The council took the unusual step of vetoing the LAPD’s proposed policy and appointed a task force, which produced the compromise that went into effect three years ago.

The city ordinance imposed the two-false-alarm limit and requires operators at security companies to try to contact clients on at least two phone numbers to see if an alarm should be canceled before the LAPD is sent.

It also imposed an increasingly steep scale of fines for each false alarm, starting at $115 for the first offense. For those who do not get an alarm permit required by the city, the fines are much higher. On Friday, city Councilwoman Wendy Greuel made a motion to amend the ordinance to cover the thousands of false alarms the city Fire Department responds to each year as well.

In one way, the plan has worked for police. By last year, the number of times police were dispatched to an alarm call had plummeted to 59,482.

At least part of the decline, police said, was due to “Alarm School” -- a reeducation camp of sorts for people with a track record of false alarms. Akin to traffic school -- and equally boring -- the two-hour classes are offered periodically at night and on weekends. In exchange for sitting through PowerPoint presentations and a melodramatic video about how to avoid false alarms, alarm owners can have their fines reduced.

Geraghty, Checkers’ owner, attended one of the classes on a sunny Saturday morning to lower his $495 bill. Bleary-eyed and unenthusiastic, about 35 people shuffled into the dimly lighted room at the LAPD’s cadet training center in Westchester. More than a few slurped coffee from foam cups. One woman dozed off with her chin in her hands.

“Would I rather be somewhere else? Definitely,” Geraghty said. “But at least they’re giving you a way out” of the bill.

On many other fronts, the city’s alarm policy has been an outright mess.

Most notably, although the overall number of alarms is down, the rate of false calls has held steady at about 97%. More than 4,500 addresses tallied three or more false alarms last year. Topping the list is a building on Hill Street in downtown L.A. -- home to scores of jewelry wholesale businesses that wrongly summoned police 253 times in 2007. The response by officers can be significant, especially at night when helicopters are sometimes called in to check rooftops.

Industry representa- tives dismissed the idea that the persistently high rate of false alarms is a sign that security systems don’t work effectively.

“It’s not a bad thing to have police respond to an alarm and patrol a neighborhood,” said Bob Michel, a board member of the California Alarm Assn. “You can look at it as a waste of time or you can look at as an important deterrent. The system itself is of value -- it’s why all the police chiefs have them and all the City Council members have them.”

For police, the full force of the reforms implemented has been undermined by a lack of follow-through in collecting fines from chronic offenders.

There are nearly 33,000 delinquent bills from the last two years alone, totaling more than $11 million that the department has failed to collect -- roughly enough to pay a year’s salary for 175 new officers.

Many of the problems stem from a police dispatch computer system that does not allow 911 dispatchers to see a tally of previous false alarms and mismatched databases that make it difficult for staff in the Alarm Division to keep tabs on outstanding bills.

Severe understaffing has also taken a toll in the Alarm Division, where five staff members fielded 14,000 calls last year from people arguing -- often rudely -- that they shouldn’t have to pay their false-alarm bills. The division is buried beneath a 10-month backlog of fine-waiver requests -- which are granted only in strictly outlined scenarios, such as when the alarm was set off by a power outage or by wind blowing harder than 70 mph.

“We are burned out,” said Harriet Voloso, who works in the Alarm Division. “The most irate callers get sent to me. They say, ‘I was on vacation,’ or ‘I am a good citizen, I shouldn’t have to pay.’ I tell them it doesn’t matter whether you’re in Cancun or on the moon, you’re still liable.”

Indeed, many people have chafed under the false-alarm policy.

“They are jerks about it. They do not give you a break, they don’t want to hear explanations,” said Faddoul Baida, who estimated he’s had a dozen false alarms at his downtown jewelry shop over the years, most caused by rats or construction workers pounding on walls.

“On the one hand, you have to feel for the cops that you’re taking them away from doing other things, but they should be a lot more lenient and understanding with us. I want to be protected.”

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joel.rubin@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Alarm facts and fiction

Law vs. reality: According to a city ordinance, Los Angeles police dispatchers are supposed to “broadcast and file” any alarm calls from addresses that have already had two false alarms in a 12-month span. That means they alert police in the area to the call, but file the call after a few minutes if no officers are available to respond. In reality, the LAPD’s computer dispatch system is unable to keep track of the number of false alarms at a given address, leaving police in the dark.

No questions asked: If an alarm indicates that someone has pushed a panic button on their system, signaling that there is an intruder in the house or that they are in some other danger, police respond immediately.

Ground rules: Anyone with an alarm system in Los Angeles is required to have a city-issued permit. For those without permits, the fines for false alarms are far higher. Permit holders pay $495 for three false alarms; the total is $945 without a permit.

Source: Joel Rubin, Times staff writer


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