Alarming news

City has no burning desire to collect false-alarm fines

The city of Dallas' overwhelming problem with false burglar alarms became abundantly apparent this past January when Ivey Head's 77-Drive-In Cafe on South Industrial Boulevard burned to the ground. A controversy ensued because a police dispatcher had refused to respond to Head's alarm company's call for help because the city worker believed the cafe operator didn't have a proper permit for the security system.

Head was the first casualty of Dallas' Draconian "no permit-no response" policy to stem a cacophony of false alarms. Public records show that the city resorted to this severe measure while failing miserably to enforce and collect the fees and fines levied under the existing false-alarm ordinance.

As the alarm-industry representatives lashed out against the city and a threat of a law suit loomed, the mayor, five city councilmembers, and a police spokesman hung tough. They defended the city worker's actions--even after they learned the business had an alarm permit that the dispatcher couldn't locate due to an error in transcription. They explained that the dispatcher had simply followed a no-permit, no-response policy that the Dallas City Council had established one week before the blaze. The policy made sense, they argued, even though a citizen's business had tragically gone up in flames.

City officials say it's a simple problem of math and taxpayer dollars: Dallas police spend too much time and money--$5 million or the equivalent of 80 full-time police officers--"to do nothing but answer false alarms," a police spokesman explains. Many of those alarms, officials argue, occur at businesses and residences where the security system users have not even bothered to pay for permits. Many have had their permits revoked because they never paid prior false-alarm service fees or fines.

"We're very concerned," Mayor Ron Kirk told The Dallas Morning News in mid-January, "but at the time people are concerned that we have spent an exorbitant amount of money and spent an inordinate amount of police time tracking down false alarms instead of real crimes."

A Dallas Observer review of the prosecution efforts for alarm-permit violators for the past three years reveals that city officials resorted to the grim policy of no permit-no response after they failed to enforce fines and collect service fees from alarm users who either failed to buy permits or were responsible for multiple false alarms. The uncollected fines during the past three years amount to upwards of $400,000.

Specifically, a report retrieved from the court-administrators office under the Texas Opens Records Act shows that in 1995 and 1994, Dallas police had issued 841 citations for alarm-permit violations. Although a city ordinance effective April 1994 called for alarm users to pay up to $500 in fines for such citations--which would be a giant step toward covering the cost of false alarms--the city has collected only a measly $6,425.

The alarm ordinance is anything but Draconian. Alarm permits cost $25 a year for residential users and $50 a year for business users. After the first five false alarms each year, an alarm user who has a permit must pay a $50 service fee for additional false calls. If the service fee is not paid, the user's permit is revoked. Operating an alarm without a permit is a violation subject to up to a $500 fine.

Rather than pay their fines, however, the vast majority of alleged alarm-permit violators---a group that includes such high-profile Dallas residents as former City Plan Commission chairman Ben Clark Jr., County Commissioner John Wiley Price's assistant, Joyce Brown, and a sports doctor and orthopedic surgeon, Dr. James Elbaor--have gotten their cases delayed or dismissed.

Some have agreed to pay only a small portion of their total fines in exchange for getting sometimes dozens of citations dismissed. Others have defended themselves effectively in municipal court against the alarm-permit-violation charges, a Class-C misdemeanor, by arguing that they didn't "knowingly and willingly" violate the ordinance by allowing a false alarm to be triggered when they didn't have a permit.

Sgt. John McCaghren, who heads up the Dallas Police Departments eight-officer special alarm units, places the blame for the poor prosecution record squarely with the City Attorney's Office.

"These cases are not real complicated," McCaghren says. "What evidence do they need? They have to ask the defendants a simple, 'Did you or did you not have a permit?'"

He says his frustrated officers were "doing all this legwork and the cases were being trashed" when they got to court by lackadaisical prosecutors or lenient judges.

Other cities with similar false-alarm problems, McCaghren says, have prosecutors devoted full-time to handling permit-violation cases. In Dallas, the cases are shared by all the prosecutors in the City Attorney's Office.

"It sounds like I'm cutting another department's throat," McCaghren concedes, but he says he believes that the city could, if the attorneys paid more attention, do a better job prosecuting these cases. As it is, it may be making the problem worse. "If you get issued 16 citations and then you get off scot-free, people learn about that," he says.

Not surprisingly, City Attorney Sam Lindsay thinks the criticism is unfair. "Everything needs to be put in perspective," he says. "The fact that they issue a citation doesn't always mean you are going to have a successful prosecution."

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