Focus and Law

False alarms rile police agencies

Plus, they are costly and breed complacency.

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LANSING — Flash. Veins of white light spread through the sky. Crackle. A blast of 100 to 120 decibels assaults your ears. But then something happens: Before the next thunderclap hits, a cacophony of car alarms begin to wail.

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.

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.

Police say that statistic holds true in Michigan. Montcalm County is one example. In 2012, its sheriff’s department responded to 330 home and business alarms — 297 of which were false, according to Sheriff Bill Barnwell. 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 children often cause false alerts.

At $50 to $120 per false call, according to the report, false alarms would cost $1 million to $2.4 million for 20,000 unnecessary responses.

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