Op-Ed: False alarms plague the Berkeley Police…

…Or How to Add More Police Officers Without Additional Cost

It’s a late Friday night as the Berkeley police officer patrolling Beat 12 on the swing-shift rolls south on Russell looking for activity at Grove Park after closing time. While slowly sweeping the baseball field with his floodlight, his radio crackles a code 21A on the 2600 block of Sacramento; a silent burglar alarm – burglary in progress. The officer slams on the accelerator lifting the hood of the car sending out an unmistakable snarl of a high RPM authority that freezes cars in its path while he asks the dispatcher for the closest intersection. Heading north on Sacramento he searches for the address until approaching Parker where he pulls up a half block short and waits for backup. As soon as his partner arrives, the two men pull out their flashlights and approach the house, which is oddly ablaze in lights.

“Berkeley Police!” they shout as they whack the door with their two-foot long flashlights. No one answers so they circle the house stumbling over bicycles and garbage cans until they see a figure in the back where they order him to stop and show his hands. The man complies, identifying himself as a worker for a janitorial service and opens the door. After inspecting his ID, the officers order him to sit on the floor while they sweep the premise where they find a second janitor. The cleaning crew had no idea that they had triggered the silent alarm; they didn’t even know there was one. The two offices radio back to the dispatcher that it was a false alarm, thank the two workers for their cooperation, and get back into their squad cars to return to their patrols.

This scenario will play out several more times before their twelve-hour shift is over and from the standpoint of many Berkeley police officers, these false alarm incidents happen to be not only their most common ones but also their most frustrating and unproductive. As one cop put it, “I’d rather be getting guns off the streets and busting drug dealers than do this. It’s part of the job so of course I have to do it.”

Like most Berkeley residents, the authors were unaware of the disturbing rate at which Berkeley police officers are sent to homes and businesses when security systems accidentally go off until they uncovered this information during the preparation of the “Report On Crime In Beat Two” that was presented to the City Council earlier this year. Members of Berkeley Police Department (BPD) Command Staff report that more than six thousand dispatches are made annually to homes and business when sensors are tripped sending signals to alarm monitoring company dispatchers who in turn dial 911 reporting an intrusion to the police. Dispatchers at the BPD then convey the address to police officers who speed to the location prepared to confront and arrest intruders in the commission of a crime. This is all well and good, and the systems function as advertised by alarm companies except for one fatal flaw; the vast majority of the alerts, a percentage as high as 98% according to the U.S. Department of Justice, are false alarms. In Berkeley, this means that each month, of the approximately 500 reports of burglaries detected by security alarms to which officers respond, evidence of forced entry is detected for as few as 10 of those 500 reports.

Why so many false alarms? Alarm companies cite an assortment of reasons why sensors are accidentally triggered, ranging from the understandable, to the absurd, and even sometimes amusing. Windy days top the list followed by small pets moving about the house, children and visitors who do not know how to operate the system, transient wireless interference, faulty installations, cleaning crews, balloons, wires gnawed by rodents, lizards sleeping on the warm sensors, and even teenagers hoping to sneak home after curfew without awakening their unsympathetic parents.

Yet, how can this be the case? How can alarm companies remain solvent with this performance? The answer is remarkably simple; they maximize their profits by having Berkeley police do the real work of investigating these alarms …at taxpayers’ expense. The average alarm company charges residential clients about $350 a year for monitoring services and in Berkeley that is all they do – monitor the alarm systems until one is triggered and then call the police. In our city, alarm companies do not dispatch employees to investigate possible intrusions; this time consuming, dangerous and costly task is left to the BPD and is paid for by your tax dollars – alarm companies do not reimburse BPD police for this service, unlike Seattle, WA. And worst of all, even residents who do not own security systems, and are therefore not using their services, are subsidizing the alarm companies as well!

What is the cost to the citizens of Berkeley? There are many ways to assess the costs. It can be done in terms of the time that false alarms distract officers from their patrols, the actual financial impact, and also the intangible cost of officers reacting to rather than preventing crime. In terms of time, it is important to note that it is the general policy of the BPD to send at least two patrol cars to the scene of a reported alarm because of the heightened probability for violence if a crime is in progress. The actual time it takes to investigate a falsely reported intrusion is an average of thirty minutes for each officer. This wasted police time equates to more than three full time officers since each officer annually patrols for roughly 1770 hours. The financial cost for three officers is about $500,000 (salary and benefits).

That figure does not include the $150,000 academy fee plus salary and out-of-town expenses it costs to hire and train three new officers. Yet, the greatest cost to the Berkeley citizenry just may be the crimes that beat officers are unable to prevent because they are busy answering false alarms. This non- quantifiable cost is far more disquieting than the other two when it means people are being victimized when even the mere presence of a patrol car in the right place at the right time can prevent crime.

Is there a solution to this plague of false alarms? Fortunately there is, and it has already been successfully implemented in many cities across North America as well as in Bay Area cities including San Jose and Fremont. It is called Verified Response (VR) which the “Report On Crime In Beat Two” urges Berkeley to adopt. A VR program shifts the burden to private alarm companies to verify that an incident is a legitimate intrusion before police are notified. When a VR policy exists and an alarm is triggered, police are notified only if the alarm company can “verify” the incident through private patrols, audio, video, sophisticated electronic sensors, an eyewitness or other forms of verification. Fire, panic, robbery, medical, and duress alarms will continue to be treated as high-priority response calls that fall outside the scope of VR. Cities that have implemented VR have reported dramatic decreases in alarms calls and false alarms to their dispatch centers and significant savings in time and cost to their citizens. They have not noticed unexpected increases in crime.

The intent of VR is to increase police productivity by reducing calls to Dispatch and by reducing beat officer time spent responding to false intrusion alarms. Of course, this goal is valid only if it can be achieved without reducing service. A Verified Response Program (VRP), therefore, must meet three criteria. First, holdup, panic, duress, medical, carbon monoxide, and fire alarms must be exempted from the policy. Second, the potential productivity gain must justify any cost of implementing the VRP. Third, the protocol must properly distinguish between true and false intrusion alarms so that the police can respond appropriately in all cases.

It is time to release our Berkeley police officers from their fruitless investigations of false alarms and put them back on their patrols to prevent and investigate real crimes. VR is a solution long overdue that will improve police security throughout Berkeley by effectively increasing staffing by possibly more than three officers without an increase to our current tax burden.

Want to learn more? Check out our website, North East Berkeley Association, to read the “Report On Crime In Beat Two” and to see a report by The Urban Institute on three Police Departments that have taken three very different approaches to implementing Verified Response.

This article was first published in the Spring 2013 edition of North East Berkeley Association News.

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Pat Mapps and James Barter joined with Shirley Dean, Dr. Alan Cohen, and Bob Flasher to author the “Report on Crime in Beat 2.” Ms. Mapps’ in-depth study of the cost of false alarms resulted from Chief Meehan’s request for suggestions about how BPD could stop wasting resources answering them. Mr. Barter’s views on false alarms stem primarily from his experience “riding along” on a BPD Officer’s 6PM to 6AM shift during which they answered three false alarm calls. When Mapps and Barter are not carrying out their civic duties, they can be found on sunny days on Codornices Park’s tennis courts.