Truly Alarming

Councilman Mitch Rasansky smells a bat--er, rat--in the city's new burglar alarm ordinance.

It sounds like a burglar's vision of paradise. Starting next Wednesday, February 1, you can break into any business in Dallas, trip up the alarm and the police won't rush to the scene. Thanks to a new law passed by the Dallas City Council, the city's finest will no longer respond to commercial burglar alarms, which will make Dallas the largest metropolitan area in the nation to adopt the so-called "verified response" policy.

The law, designed to combat a whopping 97 percent false-alarm rate, says that the alarm companies must use private security guards to verify that a nefarious burglar--as opposed to, say, a clumsy cat or frisky squirrel--tripped the alarm before police will respond. It's a dramatic piece of legislation that will affect thousands of owners of small and big businesses alike, and while there are sound arguments in its favor, the way the city crafted and promoted the bill doesn't exactly reek of good government practices.

It turns out that an obscure, unelected body with a Soviet-sounding name, the Commission on Productivity and Innovation, came up with the idea of verified response for Dallas. The commission is appointed by the city council, and its charge is to recommend ways government can operate more efficiently. After looking into how the city could reduce its high false-alarm rate, the body ultimately went with the so-called nuclear option. On July 21, 2005, the commission unanimously decided to recommend to the council that police should be exempt from responding not just to commercial but residential alarms as well. In that same meeting, the commission's chairman, Larry Davis, outlined efforts to conduct a marketing campaign supporting their measure, an unusual step for a council-appointed body that typically makes recommendations and little else. The commission sent out mailers to registered voters in North Dallas, whom they believed were more likely to have alarms, in support of its recommendation. It also organized meetings with the council's public safety committee and The Dallas Morning News editorial board. Ultimately, the News supported the verified response measure, and the public safety committee recommended that it receive a public hearing; perhaps Mayor Laura Miller should enlist their support the next time the strong-mayor initiative comes up.


burglar alarm ordinance

"We knew the alarm industry was going to make it an emotional issue, and the people needed to know why this was a good thing to do," Davis says. "We were told by the cities that successfully approached it we would have to get the message out. The alarm industry is not going to tell people the 10 to 15 advantages of going verified response."

David Marguiles, who represents alarm industry clients, argued against verified response before the council. But Dallas residents overwhelmingly spoke out against it as well. At the council's public hearing, the vast majority of people spoke in favor of continuing to rely on the police to respond to alarms. "If you listen to people who came to City Hall, they said, 'I want this city service, I am willing to pay for this city service and I think it's a safety issue,'" Marguiles says.

In addition to coordinating the campaign for the measure, Davis also helped secure $15,000 in funding to pay for the campaign. Two security-related companies, which could stand to gain by the bill's outsourcing of calls to private security personnel, chipped in $3,500.

"That's bullcrap; that's unacceptable," says council member Mitchell Rasansky, who voted against the bill. "If this is true, I hope all city council members have a problem with it."

For Davis, it's not a conflict of interest to solicit money from an affected industry. "I just happened to be around them at some of the meetings," he says. "I approached everyone I knew."

Richard Kenney, whose firm Kenski Services donated $1,000 to the campaign, says that, while it may seem like he has a vested interest in the measure, his business would probably not benefit from it substantially. "We're supportive of it because it makes good policing sense," Kenney says. "From my perspective, I'd like it to include commercial and residential properties."

The commission also flew in two Salt Lake City police officers to speak in favor of verified response before the city council. One of the officers, Shanna Werner, who serves as the alarm coordinator for the department, has become something of an activist for verified response and has spoken to public officials in California, Colorado and Washington in favor of the measure. Her department switched to verified response in 2000. In the heat of the debate over verified response, Werner told the Morning News that in Salt Lake City burglaries rose initially but are now down by 12 percent.

Her own department's crime statistics, however, tell a different tale. Burglaries have actually increased about 10 percent in Salt Lake City since verified response was put in place. Werner counters that the burglary rate is now improving. "Verified response was never intended to deal with property crimes," she says. "It was intended to deal with the waste of police resources."

In its July meeting, the commission raised that same point, noting that Dallas police officers will be more productive in responding to all crimes if they're not tied up dealing with false alarms. But again in Salt Lake City, which was repeatedly cited in Dallas as the paragon of verified response, the crime index actually ticked upward in the years after the police stopped responding to alarms. While the increase is not dramatic enough to suggest a direct correlation between higher crime and verified response, it certainly doesn't indicate that the measure is a factor in improving public safety.

In December 2004, the commission started to examine Dallas' whopping false-alarm rate. That year, out of the 62,000 burglary alarms police responded to, 60,000 were false. At first, the commission considered hiring a company to help combat the problem. In a briefing before the commission, the company proposed that it would keep a tally of which companies triggered the most false alarms and work with alarm companies to reduce the rate. But Davis says he just wasn't convinced that Dallas could make a dent in its problem.

He later approached City Manager Mary Suhm about the verified response measure, and she was for it. Most important, so was police Chief David Kunkle, although he didn't want to take the lead in promoting the measure, perhaps realizing how politically divisive it would be.

"The chief was approached by the commission and said, 'Yes, that's fine,'" says Lieutenant Rick Watson, a spokesman for the department. "But he also understood and realized this was the will of the council."

After public outcry against the measure, the council amended the bill so it wouldn't apply to homeowners. But Davis hasn't given up on the commission's original plan. Verified response for residential alarms, he says, is still "the best thing possible for the city of Dallas."

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