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If the alarm rings, who’ll respond?

Last year over 90 percent of all alarm calls in Los Angeles turned out to be false, eating up 15 percent of its police officers’ time. Now, a new police chief wants to change that. By CNBC’s Jane Wells.
/ Source: CNBC

“Is the alarm ringing or silent?” At the Los Angeles Police Department’s dispatch station that’s a question they hear a lot. Last year over 90 percent of all alarm calls in Los Angeles turned out to be false alarms. In a city where the murder rate is skyrocketing, the LAPD says it wastes 15 percent of its police officers’ time on false alarms. The city’s new police chief wants to change that.

“That 15 percent,” says L.A. Police Chief William Bratton, “could be focused in the parks, in the school yards, in the streets.”

Bratton has gotten approval to take a radical step. By mid-April Los Angeles police will no longer respond to any burglar alarms unless someone else — such as a guard from an alarm company — verifies a break-in. It’s a decision that has split the city like a faultline. And many people are feeling betrayed by the process.

Bratton says he wants to make sure the police department does not have to respond to what he says is a 92-to-96 percent false alarm rate.

Still, there are some exemptions: Panic button calls and the alarms at homes of local politicians will still be responded to by police.

That sparked criticism of the new policy around the city. “What makes them more important than you? What makes them more important than me or my business?” asked Marc Grover, who credits his burglar alarm with saving his exotic fish store from total destruction during a fire one night last year.

What will Grover do next time the alarm goes off at night? “Let’s see, drive very fast, break a bunch of laws, get here with my load handgun, no I don’t really know to be honest with you.”

Some alarm company owners like Vince Nigro don’t like the new police policy because even though alarm companies could make more money hiring guards and charging for them, Nigro says he’s in the monitoring business, not the armed guard business.

“I think what we are saying to the burlgars in L.A.. is ‘welcome, you know, did you want a tan while you’re here,’ and I think we are going to increase the fear factor not decrease it.”

Los Angeles is not the first city to take such a step.

Two years ago Salt Lake City police stopped responding to alarms unless someone visually confirmed a break-in. In Salt Lake, an attempt at imposing fines on repeat false alarm offenders was did not reduce the number of false alarms. Now, the fines have almost disappeared and customers with alarm services pay about $5 a month for guard services, which respond more quickly to alarm calls than the police did.

Alarm calls to police dropped 90 percent in Salt Lake, and while commercial burglaries have gone up, the overall, the burglary rate is down. What’s more, Salt Lake officials say police response times to other high priority calls has gone from five minutes to three minutes.

But many L.A. residents are worried about what will happen when the same plan goes into effect here in less than two months.

After heated debate, the city council voted on whether or not the police commission decision to stop responding to burglar alarms — and the vote ended in a seven-seven tie. That tie gave the chief the go-ahead.

In the middle of April, if Marc Grover’s alarm goes off, the police won’t come unless he can prove there’s a need.

“What do I get to do now? What are my options?” Grover asks. “Why do I have this alarm system here if it isn’t going to do me any good?”