Crying Wolf! gets more expensive
By CHRIS TISCH
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 5, 2001
CLEARWATER -- There may be a burglar prowling or a robber stalking, but police officers aren't spending as much time as they would like patrolling streets and neighborhoods to prevent those criminals from finding victims.
Instead, officers are spending that time steering their patrol cars to false alarms that are blaring at businesses and homes. In 2000, Clearwater police officers responded to 5,843 false alarms.
That is five times the number of burglaries reported in the city last year and twice the number of larcenies. It is 15 times the number of auto theft calls and 34 times the number of robberies.
False alarms make up 3.5 percent of the department's call volume. Officers respond to an average of about 16 false alarms per day. False alarms in Clearwater have climbed 17 percent since 1997.
Sensing that false alarms were becoming a problem, police Chief Sid Klein proposed to the city commission earlier this year that the fine for false alarms be upped to $50 from $30, which it had been for the past 10 years.
City commissioners approved the change by a unanimous vote Thursday after a second reading of the ordinance.
Part of Klein's motive was to recoup some of the costs associated with responding to false alarms. The city collected $87,000 in false alarm charges in 2000, and that figure should rise with the fine increase. That money goes into the city's general fund, not directly to the police department.
Klein figures it costs about $49.61 for the police department to respond to each false alarm. That means the department spent about $290,000 last year responding to them.
"Our costs are going up, and the cost of the alarm ordinance has not for 10 years," Klein said. "I think it's an unnecessary burden on the general taxpayers of the city of Clearwater because they're the ones that wind up paying for it."
But Klein said he also wants the heftier fine to be a deterrent. He hopes business and homeowners will be more careful with their alarm systems so they only summon officers if the threat of a crime is real.
"The objective is to reduce the number of alarms," Klein said. "I think that it doesn't hurt to give both the homeowners and the businesses a wake-up call that you're impacting the resources of your police department when they respond to something needlessly."
But not all law enforcement leaders buy into that. Though there is a Pinellas County ordinance that allows sheriff's office deputies to issue fines for false alarms, none do. That's because Sheriff Everett Rice doesn't believe in punishing residents or businesses that equip themselves with a crime prevention tool such as an alarm.
"His philosophy essentially is he wants to support the people who get alarms," said Marianne Pasha, a sheriff's office spokeswoman.
Sheriff's deputies responded to 29,009 alarms last year, up 3 percent from 1997. County ordinances allow for pretty hefty fines -- $125 for the first violation, $250 for the second and $500 for each one after that. There also is a $10 fine for court costs.
If Rice fined for false alarms, he could take hundreds of thousands of dollars from the pockets of citizens and pump it into the county government.
"They could if they chose to," said assistant county attorney Donald S. Crowell. "It's like a speeding ticket. They can write one if they want."
The city of Dunedin, which is patrolled by the sheriff's office, also has a penalty for alarms. But deputies have not used it in at least five years, said Capt. John Bolle, commander of the sheriff's north district station.
Bolle said crime prevention deputies will work with businesses or homeowners who are having troubles with false alarms.
"We have not actually had to enforce the ordinance," Bolle said. "The sheriff, being in this business a long time, knows it's difficult to penalize someone when they're trying to safeguard their facility. We feel that's kind of self-defeating, so we try to resolve these things in a positive way."
In Largo, there have been 1,633 alarms, of which 1,285 -- almost 80 percent -- were false over the past 18 months.
Largo police do not charge for the first five false alarms in a year. After that, the fine begins at $25 and gradually climbs until it reaches $500 at the 20th alarm. Each false alarm after that is an additional $500.
Largo also charges $25 each year to renew an alarm permit; only those homes or businesses that had no false alarms in the past year are exempt from that charge, according to the ordinance.
Though Largo's fine schedule is less stiff on homes and businesses that have only a few false alarms per year, it is more brutal to those with many alarms.
Clearwater's ordinance was first written in 1990 by Rob Surette, an assistant city attorney assigned as legal adviser to the police department.
People who get alarm systems must get a permits from the city, but it's unlike a building permit in that it cannot be denied. The permit simply provides police officers with information about whom to call should the alarm sound.
The city allows a 30-day grace period for people to work kinks out of their alarm systems and properly train employees on how to use them. The first false alarm after those 30 days results in a warning with no fine.
After that, it will be $50 a pop for false alarms. People can appeal to the city manager's office, and false alarms caused by things out of the owner's control -- such as severe weather -- don't result in a charge, Surette said.
If alarm owners don't pay the fine, their permits can be revoked.
If another alarm occurs, city officials will contact alarm owners and tell them what they owe. If they still don't pay, a police officer will call them to give them another opportunity to pay.
"We're not looking to punish people," Surette said.
After that, owners will have 20 days to pay an additional $60 fine or to appear in county court, where they can argue against a charge that they violated the ordinance. A judge can fine violators up to $500 at that point.
No one from Clearwater has wound up in court on an alarm ordinance violation since the initial alarm ordinance was adopted in 1990, Surette said.
Surette said he considers Clearwater's ordinance "extraordinarily pro-citizen," but added: "There comes a point where you have to say enough is enough, where the responsibility has to shift to the alarm user."
Behind the numbers
In presenting his case to city commissioners, Klein added the hourly salaries of a patrol officer, a backup officer, a sergeant and a dispatcher who are involved in taking and responding to the false alarm. On top of that, he added the hourly wages of a records supervisor, an accounting clerk and the community service officer who supervises the clerk.
The average combined hourly salary of those people is $136.92, according to Klein's figures.
Klein indicated in his presentation that each of those people spends about 20 minutes on an alarm call, so he took one-third of each of their hourly salaries and added them. He tossed in mileage and postage and came up with $49.61 per false alarm.
Thus the need for a $50 charge.
That fine seems too high to Arch Johnston, church administrator at Heritage United Methodist Church at Countryside, 2680 Landmark Drive. False alarms summoned officers to the church 37 times in 2000, making it the seventh-most-frequent false alarm address in Clearwater.
Johnston said the church's alarm system had a "hot sensor or two that created some problems." He said the church is now looking at alternatives.
"I think $50 is excessive," he said.
He said he questions that amount partially because the church pays police officers $25 an hour on Sundays to direct traffic before and after services.
The church's problem with a faulty alarm system is a rare cause of false alarms, according to the National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association, which reports that 76 percent of false alarms are caused by user error.
Preventing false alarms
-- Source: National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association
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