By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
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."
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.