False alarms rile police agencies

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By MICHAEL GERSTEIN
Capital News Service
LANSING – Flash. Veins of white light spread through the sky. Crackle. A blast of 100 to 120 decibels assault your ears. But then something happens:
The pitter-patter of rain before the next lightning strike is interrupted: Parked cars outside wail as the thunderclap triggers their alarm systems.
But the problem goes beyond annoying noise, law enforcement officials say. Just as storms can set off car theft alarms, home and business alarm systems may mistakenly summon the police when there’s no burglar around.
And there’s usually no burglar.

A recent study by the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., says 90 to 99 percent of alarm system calls to the police prove false. It’s a phenomenon that experts say wastes time and money and even breeds complacency.
And police say that statistic holds true in Michigan.
Montcalm County is one example.
In 2012 alone, its sheriff’s office responded to 330 alarms – 297 of which were false, according to Sheriff Bill Barnwell. And he said the total number of false alarms in the county was likely larger once state and other responding local agencies are added into the mix.
He said his department considered instituting a fee system for false alarms but decided the move would be less-than-well-received in an already economically struggling community.
“Besides, someone would then need to manage the system, including the billing and collection for false trips,” Barnwell added.
But other Michigan municipalities have passed ordinances fining alarm-owners for false alerts.
“In spite of the fact that many cities have ordinances, we still have way too many false alarms,” said Robert Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police in Okemos.
“It’s a huge problem. It’s a spending waste. It’s an officer safety issue – even though you try to not get complacent after so many false alarms, you expect it to be false,” said Stevenson, a former police chief in Livonia.
This boy-cried-wolf scenario led Detroit to scrap alarm responses altogether, Stevenson said, as officers waste valuable time scrambling to would-be crime scenes in a city where cops are already strapped for time and money.
“They’re just backed up. Mix in hundreds of alarms – most of them false – and they just don’t have the time to respond to them.”
False alarms have many triggers. Storms are among them, as well as negligence, human error and equipment malfunctions.
The Urban Institute report said errors by homeowners, guests or their children often cause false alerts.
At $50 to $120 per false call, according to the report, false alarms would cost $1 to $2.4 million for 20,000 unnecessary responses.
Online resources for CNS editors:
http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/412729-Opportunities-for-Police-Cost-Savings-Without-Sacrificing-Service-Quality.pdf

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