Austin patrol officer Zachary Reed was cruising the northwest district on an evening in mid-December when a burglar alarm activation call from a business at Lakeline Mall popped up on his in-car computer screen. “I’ve been to this place before,” he said.
A check on the drive down U.S. 183 showed that this evening’s alarm was the fifth alarm call from the International Bank of Commerce in recent months — the fourth since late November. Thirteen minutes after the Police Department’s dispatch center broadcast the alarm, Reed’s cruiser glided to the curb in front of the mall, where he met a second patrol officer; the department’s policy calls for two officers to respond to all alarms.
Reed peered through the bank’s roll gate into the empty office. After tugging on the gate, he hypothesized that it wasn’t making full contact with the latch, producing the false alarm. He called mall security guards, who agreed to contact the bank the following day.
The call, which consumed about an hour of total police time, was extraordinarily common. An American-Statesman analysis of police statistics over the past five years shows that, on average, Austin police respond to more than 80 burglary alarms every day. Nine out of 10 of those are false.
The high rate of false alarms — most commonly the result of equipment failure or user error — isn’t unusual. Industrywide, false alarms rates of 90 to 99 percent are common.
Large municipal police forces have complained for years that answering tens of thousands of unnecessary calls for service to check out alarms installed and monitored by private companies drains away manpower and diverts their attention from more serious policing — such as genuine burglaries, which are reported about 20 times a day in Austin. While security companies say alarms can deter break-ins and limit their severity, police say they rarely catch criminals thanks to an alarm.
Austin has taken steps in recent years to reduce the burden of unnecessary alarm calls on the Police Department. Mandated registration fees and fines for persistent false alarms, for example, cover some of the city’s response cost, although police officials said that doesn’t cover all of it.
And, while the city’s alarm calls trended slowly downward between 2008 and 2012, last year saw an increase in both the number of alarms and percentage that were false. In some parts of the city, especially well-to-do residential neighborhoods, false alarms demanded more police attention than any other type of calls except traffic stops.
The department’s efforts have been hampered by a series of weak ordinances and laws that provide little incentive for alarm companies and their customers to cut down on the frequency of false alarms. Some cities, for example, require alarm companies to attempt to contact home or business owners at two separate phone numbers to confirm a break-in or false activation before dialing 911.
Austin, however, merely encourages the practice. Officials say they don’t know how often the protocol is followed, or which of the city’s approximately 85 registered alarm companies make two calls, one call, or even none before requesting a police officer be dispatched to the scene.
Other cities have limited unnecessary calls by refusing to respond to addresses with a high number of false alarms — a practice even the alarm industry promotes. A Houston ordinance calls for an alarm permit to be revoked after seven false alarms.
By comparison, Austin never revokes permits for too many false calls. In 2012, Austin police responded to 21 addresses with 20 or more false alarms; one had nearly 50. (Though the majority of false alarms are from homes, most repeat offenders are businesses.)
“You could have 100 false alarms” and Austin police would still respond, conceded Mary Ann Carney, who administers the Austin Police Department’s alarm program.
And while the city assesses fines for excessive false alarms, thanks to a state law unique to Texas, those penalties are comparatively lenient. A 2005 state law requires all municipalities in the state to allow any single address three false alarms before levying a penalty; the alarm industry recommends only one free pass before assessing fines.
State lawmakers also set the fines for false alarms relatively low, starting at $50 and gradually increasing to a maximum of $100. Cities outside the state that have found success reducing false alarms can have penalties starting at double that, and rising into the thousands of dollars.
False alarms have plagued police departments ever since the systems started becoming popular in the 1980s. Yet as the number of monitored security systems has grown — nationally, alarmed homes and businesses have nearly tripled over the past dozen years, according to the Frisco-based Security Industry Alarm Coalition — the issue has become more urgent. Tight police budgets have added more stress.
Traditionally, up to 99 percent of all alarms are false. The industry says the number is misleading: Measured against the total number of systems in use, the number of false calls is low. Yet for law enforcement departments called upon to respond to tens of thousands of alarm activations annually, the volume can be a drain, consuming the equivalent of several policing positions each shift.
Over time, it also dulls response to genuine emergencies. “If they cry wolf 98 percent of the time, it’s not taken seriously,” said Phil Schaenman, who authored a 2012 report for the Urban Institute citing false alarms as a low-hanging problem cities could tackle to save millions of dollars without compromising safety.
Many customers are under the impression that home and business alarms installed and monitored by private companies, which can cost upward of $100 a month, help police nab crooks. “Somehow, the idea has been planted in their heads that we’re going to beam down Star Trek-like and catch the burglar,” said Shanna Werner, alarm coordinator for Salt Lake City.
But in truth, police say most burglars are in and out in minutes. And like most departments, Austin treats alarm calls as a low priority — responders use no lights or sirens, and travel at the speed limit. More urgent calls bump alarm calls.
The result: “By the time it’s dispatched, the chance of catching anyone is next to zero,” said Sgt. Robert Hester, a former longtime supervisor in Austin’s burglary unit.
Chief Art Acevedo stressed that alarms serve a valuable purpose. He noted that even if 28,500 of the city’s 31,760 burglary alarm calls last year were false, it still means 3,000 calls yielded some evidence of a break-in.
Acevedo added that while his department doesn’t regularly track how many arrests result from alarm calls — he said it will soon start counting them — police do occasionally interrupt crimes thanks to alarms. He cited two examples in which officers responding to burglar alarms arrived at a crime in progress, including a 2010 incident in which police shot and killed 16-year-old Devin Contreras as he fled from a Big Lots retail store in South Austin.
Yet the last time the city did count arrests tied to burglar alarms, the number was minuscule compared with the volume of alarms. According to an internal report, Austin police in 2006 made 11 arrests as the result of commercial alarm activation — and zero from residential alarms.
“Austin police arrested burglars in less than 0.03 of 1 percent of the responses,” the 2007 report concluded. “Stated otherwise, 99.97 percent of all burglar alarm responses did not result in an apprehension being made.”
Other cities that do track such numbers confirm it is rare for a burglar to be apprehended thanks to an alarm. Milwaukee reported 14 people arrested as the result of burglar alarm activations in 2012. In Seattle, police reported 27 alarm-related arrests in 2012, a number that included domestic violence arrests resulting from one of the parties pushing a so-called panic button alarm.
“Realistically, if someone is in the house, they’re in and out pretty quick,” said Detective Heather Roufs, who oversees Seattle’s alarm program. “We’re just not going to get there in the five minutes it takes a burglar to get in and out.”
Even the alarm industry says that the real importance of a police response to burglar alarms isn’t to catch burglars, but rather to maintain the perception among lawbreakers that authorities are on the way. At the least, that limits the time lawbreakers stay inside a residence or business, and at best convinces them to avoid it altogether, said Stan Martin, executive director of the Security Industry Alarm Coalition, a national advocacy group based in Frisco.
“Traditional alarm systems are not designed to catch burglars; they’re designed to scare them off,” he said.
Many insurers offer discounts on homeowner premiums for residences with monitored security systems, said Loretta Worters, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute. She cited two studies — both financed by the alarm industry — demonstrating alarms act as a deterrent to burglaries.
In one, burglars surveyed in prison cited alarm systems as a reason they would avoid a home. Another found that homes with alarms were less likely to be broken into and provided an “umbrella” effect, preventing nearby homes without alarms from burglary, as well.
Paying their way
A traditional criticism of police response to alarms is that it forces all taxpayers to subsidize the minority of residences with alarm systems — “generally found in more affluent homes,” the Urban Institute report noted.
Austin police said they don’t track where registered alarm users are located. But a 2012 study of how city patrol officers spent their time reported that the areas where burglary alarms accounted for the highest proportion of calls were in the city’s more affluent southwest sector, which includes well-off neighborhoods from Barton Hills to Circle C; and in the generally well-off central Old West Austin neighborhoods, such as Clarksville and Tarrytown.
In an effort to try to get users to pay their own way, most cities nationally have begun assessing alarm owners an annual registration fee. Austin has 41,000 registered residential alarm systems — a little under a quarter of all houses inside the city limits — and 11,400 registered commercial systems. Registration fees brought in about $1.47 million last year; false alarm fees added just under $1 million.
Police say they don’t calculate whether or not that covers the cost of responding to the calls, including officer and dispatch time, wear and tear on vehicles and the cost of administering the alarm program. “But,” said Carney, “my guess is, no, it does not cover it.” The internal police report estimated that in 2006 responding to alarms cost Austin $600,000 more than it collected.
One reason for the shortfall is that, unlike other states, which leave the decision of how best to work with alarm owners to individual municipalities, Texas law restricts when and how its cities punish owners of alarm systems that trouble police time and again. Until 2005, state law required that citizens not be fined until they had accumulated five false alarms in a 12-month period.
In 2005, the law was tightened slightly; today, Texas cities still must allow an address three false alarms before levying a fine. Fines top out at $100 — but only when a single address has accumulated eight or more false alarms in a 12-month period.
Municipalities outside of Texas that have tied fines to the actual cost of responding to alarms charge more. In Phoenix, alarm owners are permitted only a single false call before they are assessed a $96 fee for each additional false alarm — a figure department spokesman Steve Martos said was calculated by the city auditor to cover actual police expenses.
Seattle charges $115 for every false alarm — “what our cost is,” said Roufs. As an additional incentive to cut down on unnecessary calls, the city bills the alarm company rather than individual residents. “It makes sure they go out and repair any faulty equipment,” she said.
About two dozen cities nationally have adopted strict rules they say dramatically reduce false alarms without compromising safety. But thanks to a law quietly passed by Texas legislators, it is unlikely to be enacted here.
Unlike the traditional response, which assumes alarms have been set off by an intruder and so must be answered, “verified response” presumes an alarm is false and so requires an eyewitness to confirm the signal was set off by an actual break-in before police are called. The job typically is performed by private security guards hired by the alarm companies who respond at all hours and alert police only if there is evidence of a break-in.
Cities that have adopted the system say it has improved the efficiency of their police departments without compromising safety. Milwaukee police responded to 27,000 burglar alarms in 2003, the year before it implemented verified response; in 2012, the number was 617.
In Salt Lake City, where police responses to alarms went from 10,500 in 1998, to 323 last year, Werner said shifting responsibility to private security to vet alarms actually improved response times. Burglary rates have fallen during the same time, she said.
The alarm industry considers verified response to be an extreme form of regulation, however, and has fought hard against it. “It’s a horrible model,” said Martin, of the alarm coalition. “You’re eliminating a core service to everyone in the city. I wouldn’t want to live in those cities.”
In the early 2000s, several Texas police departments, including Arlington and Fort Worth, floated the idea. Alarm companies mounted an aggressive response, rallying customers to bombard city officials with complaints, said David Kunkle, at the time an Arlington assistant city manager. “The department got hammered,” he recalled.
In response, in 2005 then-Rep. Joe Driver, R-Garland, attached an amendment to a medical alert bill that required any city considering verified response to hold public hearings before doing so. “It was a compromise,” said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League. Texas cities could enact the policy, “but they had to jump through hoops to get there.”
To date, those hoops have proven insurmountable.
Dallas implemented verified response in early 2006. Despite a decrease in false alarm reports and praise from the police department, the policy was repealed a year and a half later. Rallied by the alarm industry, emotional citizens testified they feared for their safety, recalled Kunkle, then the city’s police chief. An alarm advocacy organization commissioned a study of Salt Lake City residents to present to Dallas officials showing two-thirds of the Utah city’s residents disapproved of verified response (although 80 percent also said they weren’t aware it was their city’s policy).
Other police departments took notice. “We all looked at that and said, ‘The community isn’t ready for verified response,’” said Steve Dye, then an assistant chief in nearby Garland, and now chief of Grand Prairie Police Department.
No Texas police department has since attempted to implement verified response to tackle high false alarm rates. Acevedo said he’s not considering the idea. “There’s an expectation that when (citizens) take the time to set up an alarm, we’re going to respond,” he said.
Kunkle, now a law enforcement consultant, calls the reform “good public policy, but terrible politics,” adding: “I don’t think verified response will ever be proposed in Texas again.”
Top false alarm offenders in 2012 and 2013
• Connally High School (Pflugerville ISD): 49
• Sears, Interstate 35/Parmer Lane: 40
• Wells Fargo Bank, 5900 W. Slaughter Lane: 36
• Mangia Pizza, 12001 Burnet Road: 35
• Maxwell Ford, I-35/Stassney Lane: 33
• Central Health/North Central Health Center, 1210 W. Braker Lane: 33
• NTB Discount Tires, I-35/St. Elmo Road: 32
• East Side Grocery, 5618 Manor Road: 32
• Pizza Hut, 13717 Burnet Road: 32
• City of Austin Central Maintenance Complex, Lakeshore Boulevard: 31
Why it matters
Austin police respond to about 80 burglar alarms every day of the year, yet 90 percent of them are false, eating up time that officers could be using for other law enforcement work. The city charges a permitting fee for alarm systems and penalties for excessive false alarms at a single address, however, officials say the money collected doesn’t make up for the cost of police response.