To Verify or Not to Verify

Law enforcement ponders the question in various cities

On Mar. 1, Akron, Ohio’s police department became only the 30th across the United States to employ what is known as a verified response policy, which means that before police respond to an alarm, it must be verified that there is, indeed, a crime being committed.

Since there are more than 18,000 law-enforcement agencies across the country, Akron’s move is barely a ripple. But, it has angered alarm companies and the primary advocacy business group that represents them, the Security Industry Alarm Coalition (SIAC).

Why? Because in Akron’s case the police department publicly announced that it would no longer be responding to security alarms, so as Jon Sargent of TYCO Integrated Security puts it, “People were being broken into like crazy.” Sargent is also the law enforcement liaison with SIAC.

Making that announcement was not the smartest PR move, but it came about because, according to its Police Chief James Nice, statistics show that 98 percent of the 10,000 annual alarm calls in Akron turn out to be false.

These numbers reflect the broader national picture, so why the industry discontent, when clearly the police are often sent on wild goose chases? SIAC says that verified response puts the public in danger, while the police chief, in an article in the Akron Beacon Journal, says that the alarm industry is fear mongering by sending alarmist letters to residents to bolster their own business interests.

“The alarm industry is putting up a misinformation, propaganda front,” Nice said in the article. “The truth is, I just want to do good with APD resources. These [alarm] guys are looking at profits and they want us to be doing their work.” The Akron police will continue to respond to panic, emergency and hold-up alarms.

The SIAC side firmly believes, and has done studies verifying, that alarm systems themselves are a deterrent. According to an article by Stan Martin of SIAC, “…studies from Rutgers University and University of North Carolina Charlotte Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology show that alarm systems are a highly effective deterrent. The study provides empirical data on the value of alarms to the community, reporting that crime is reduced and not moved to another area and, after removing other factors, that the reduction in burglaries extended geographically far beyond the protected premises. The study is further validated by another study conducted by the UNC at Charlotte where they interviewed prison inmates serving time for burglary. According to the study 83 percent of burglars said they would try to determine whether there was an alarm present before attempting a burglary and 60 percent said they would seek an alternate target if there is an alarm on site.”

Ken Kirschenbaum, a colorful and prolific Garden City, N.Y.-based lawyer who specializes in alarm-related issues, says, “It’s never a false alarm because the alarm went off. Did we get it because a bird flew into the house or the wind kicked something up into the window contact, or the dog got out of the cage? Maybe. What we mean by false alarm is there was no break in, no criminal activity,” he says. “But when it’s happening nobody knows it, and that’s why we have 99 out of 100 false alarms.”

Kirschenbaum points out that, other than for fire alarms, systems are not engaged during the day in a commercial setting.

“The signal comes in when no one is there,” Kirschenbaum said. “At that point, sometimes the alarm operator may be looking for the subscriber to make the call, to use his judgment as to whether police should be dispatched. The onus thus shifts to the owner rather than the alarm company making the decision themselves, and if a fine is issued they can say that the owner told them to respond.”

Types of Response:

  • Verified response means that police will not dispatch officers unless someone confirms a break in. Some companies send guards or their own personnel (runners), neither of which usually carry guns (security guards are not armed under most circumstances; they are instructed to call the police and not to apprehend a criminal themselves. Each state has different laws regarding guards.). This process, when the Central Station (CS) has to verify, either through audio, video or eye witness that a “crime” is being committed, is very different from enhanced call verification, or ECV.
  • ECV is a method by which the CS makes two or more calls to either the premises or to the Responsible Parties (RPs) to try and determine if there is a known reason why the alarm is going off. This typically reduces calls for service by up to 60 percent more than just a single call to the premises.
  • A Model Alarm Ordinance requires registration of alarm systems with local police, a fine structure, new equipment standards, suspension of response to chronic abusers and Enhanced Call Verification (ECV). When the Model Ordinance is adopted and enforced with no free responses, it has delivered as high as a 90 percent reduction in dispatches.
  • Subsidy recovery is very simple and gives the industry flexibility and responsibility for best practices. The caller pays a fee for police services, i.e., the monitoring source. In Seattle, for example, that fee is $115. Every request for alarm response is billed to the alarm company that made the call, and there are no freebies or fines/fees levied against the customer. Each call is assumed to be false. If evidence at the scene shows that a 911-type event has or is occurring, the charge is voided. If a cancellation is requested, the monitoring firm is billed a cancellation fee.

None of these methods intend for the property owner to be the responding party. Subscribers should not typically be responding to these alarms, but because a growing number of alarm locations don’t have land lines, CSs using ECV protocols have to call subscribers’ cell phones,may come up against the burglars or they may come up against law enforcement who doesn’t know the difference between the owner and the burglar—either way there is a potentially bad combination of armed and unarmed people in the same space.

Kirschenbaum is “the guru,” regarding all things related to the alarm industry. Up to 70 percent of his business revolves around the alarm industry. His site, https://www.kirschenbaumesq.com/page/alarm-contract, is a cornucopia of information with thousands of articles and viewpoints from law enforcement officials and alarm company executives. One ex-cop said, “These days, virtually 100 percent of property crime is driven by drugs, and almost all offenders are high at the time of the crime. So, sirens and alarms in general don’t deter them in their quest to support their drug addiction. ‘Deterrence doesn’t deter the determined.’”

One other key point the former policeman makes is that municipalities realize property crime is covered by insurance, and that is why police resources are tasked with crimes against people, as opposed to crimes against property. He adds that murder is solved in some cities at a nearly 80 percent rate, where property crime is resolved around 10 percent of the time.

“There is a lot to be said for responding guard service,” Kirschenbaum said. “Though I don’t know how good an idea it is for guards to get involved with site searches or attempting to apprehend criminals, on-site verification of an emergency situation should result in less crime and police response. Obviously, police respond only after guard confirmation, or other ECV, so another confirmation is going to delay that response, at least theoretically. Reality is different, since too many police are putting alarm signals at the bottom of priority response, often leading to no response. Private guards and runners may be gaining popularity and may soon be a necessity.”

The SIAC’s Sargent says “I have to look at this from the 50,000-foot view. Where are the false alarms coming from? Roughly 10 percent are repeat offenders.” The SIAC has an “Adopt a City” initiative that looked at, in a one-month period, what 12 addresses the police were sent to more than once. Once the repeaters’ are identified, the alarm company and the end user then have to provide proof of resolution.

In Phoenix, Sargent says, “They have a very effective program. The police go to all alarms; if they have a couple that are out of control, they charge a fine instead of going to verified response.”

Las Vegas was the first city to do verified response, in 1997. “They have an overabundance of security guard companies, so it’s built into the model of the company. If you get an alarm you expect a response,” Sargent adds. In Vegas, response to alarms is part of the cost of having an alarm.

Various companies, such as Honeywell and TYCO, have products the enable people to manage their businesses from several locations via camera and an app. Videofied, derived from ITT’s RSI Video Technologies, sends a 20-second clip tripped when the alarm was detected. There’s a lot of positive momentum with this technology. “All the major central stations are getting involved in it,” Sargent said.

Priority Response is what Videofied claims to obtain with its system, and Kirschenbaum agrees that it’s excellent. “There have been some very positive reports about Videofied. If cameras are there, a picture is taken and sent immediately to the police department,” he says, adding that “It’s been helpful in actual convictions for identifying a criminal.” And isn’t that what it’s all about?

This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Security Today.

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