False alarms taking up police manpower

CLEVELAND (AP) - False alarms at homes and businesses are eating away at police department manpower, leaving officers less time to handle more serious crime.

False alarms -- generally triggered by user error, windy weather or a pet -- make up 10 percent to 25 percent of all calls to police, a Justice Department study found.

In Cleveland last year, 97 percent of the 17,757 commercial burglar alarms that rang turned out to be false.

The city's police department estimates its officers spent 6,833 hours responding to those alarms. That's the equivalent of three police officers working a regular eight-hour shift for a year.

"That's a drain on our resources," Deputy Chief Martin DeCara told The Plain Dealer.

The same thing is happening in other Ohio cities.

Of the 59,174 burglar alarms that rang in Akron between 1996 and 2002 99 percent were false. In Dayton, 97 percent of all alarms last year were false.

Cleveland police are considering a fine for home or business owners after a second false alarm in a calendar year.

Many other police departments have similar programs, with fines increasing to as much as $300 and leading to a misdemeanor citation in Cincinnati.

In the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, police not only fine a property owner, but also have the right to take away an alarm if its owners can't stop it from ringing, Police Chief Walter Ugrinic said. They haven't taken away an alarm yet.

Cleveland cited business owner Roshunda Wright last week after an alarm sounded at her nail salon for the third time this year and officers could not find any sign of a break-in.

When she arrived at work the next day, Wright discovered what the officers had missed: That someone climbed through a plywood covered space above the front doors and took a $250 nail drill.

Police did void the citation.

"I just don't understand how they couldn't see that there were burglars inside," she said.

Some agencies contend it ought not be the police who should respond to an alarm to begin with.

Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton has ordered that officers stop responding to alarms unless a property owner or a private security company verifies that the alarm sounded for a legitimate threat. The policy is to go into effect next week.

Dave DeBraccio of the Ohio Burglar and Fire Alarm Association said the false-alarm problem could be solved if those selling alarms would properly train home and business-owners how to use

He said it is unfair that companies sell a product, then rely on police to deal with its incessant ringing.

"So many customers don't understand their systems," he said. "If we can't stop having a lot of false alarms, this industry is going to get a lot more expensive" for the customer.

If police stop responding to commercial and residential alarms, alarm companies will have no choice but to pay someone to check out alarms, then bill the customer, he said.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)