By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Lindsay says his department will restrict future plea bargains: "That kind of stuff isn't going to happen any more."
False alarms are a tremendous problem in Dallas, accounting for 20 percent of all calls answered by Dallas police. In 1995, the police responded to 134,263 alarm calls. Of those, 98.8 percent, or 132,700, were false alarms. Levi Davis, the assistant city manager who oversees police-department issues, says that only half the $5 million annual costs of false alarms is recovered through permit or service fees.
Yet under Texas state law, the companies that provide the security-alarm systems--and make a profit from that business--have significant protections against covering the public's expense of false alarms. A statute forbids municipalities from passing ordinances that fine the security companies for false alarms or permit violations, leaving the home or business owner shouldering the burden of blame and fines.
"The law is poorly written," says Dr. James Elbaor. "It benefits the alarm industry."
Elbaor's North Dallas home, according to the report produced by the city's court-administration services, was cited for 10 permit violations in 1994 and 1995. His cases were dismissed by a judge who ruled that he complied with the law, even though the fines were not paid. Elbaor's wife, Ellen Elbaor, a lawyer who fought the couple's fines, says she and her husband paid $1,800 for service fees for the false alarms--but argued they shouldn't pay the $500 permit-violation fines that were levied during their legal wrangling with the city. The judge agreed and dismissed the fines.
Ellen Elbaor says that she and her husband didn't know the permit had to be renewed every year. "At $500 per pop, they [the city] just went overboard," she says.
Commissioner Price's assistant, Joyce Brown, has been cited 11 times in 1994-95 for alarm-permit violations at her Oak Cliff house. Already 10 of those cases have been dismissed. One is scheduled for court this month.
Brown contends that she did not "willingly or knowingly" allow her system to trigger false alarms. She says she doesn't even know if the police were actually dispatched to her house because she often was out of town when the false alarms occurred. "Only one time did a police officer put a [false-alarm notification] sticker on my door," Brown says.
Former Plan Commission chairman Ben Clark had 20 alarm-permit violations in 1994 and 1995. He paid the city $1,100 for two of those. The other 18 citations were dismissed. Clark did not return phone calls from the Observer.
Ellen Elbaor says the city's response to the problem of false alarms is absurd. A better solution, she says, would be to significantly hike the up-front alarm-permit fee and service fees, but eliminate the often confusing and inequitable fines. "They went and passed this goofy [no permit-no response] measure," shes says. "There's got to be a better way.