COLUMBIA — About 96.5 percent of the time an alarm goes off at a Columbia home or business, it's the result of a malfunction, or someone or something — such as a cat or the weather — accidentally tripping the alarm.
Time that the Columbia Police Department spends responding to alarms is time spent away from patrolling the streets and preventing crime.
The department, which has said it is significantly understaffed, is looking for solutions. It spent more than $1 million on overtime pay from 2008 to 2012 and, to reduce officer workload, made a procedural change in 2009 that allowed officers to walk away from non-injury accidents without writing a time-consuming report afterward.
This summer, the conversation about what to do about police understaffing ended inconclusively after Mayor Bob McDavid proposed a 20-cent increase in property taxes to pay for 35 new officers. He dropped the idea when the Columbia Police Officers' Association failed to support the tax increase.
Shifts are still being staffed below the optimal number, Sgt. Joseph Bernhard said. During a "full strength" shift, 12 patrol officers are working. These days, there are usually 10 or 11.
“Just about every unit in the Police Department is about 10 percent down, manpower-wise,” he said.
That has the department looking at creative solutions to the problem of too few cops for too many calls. A large percentage of the calls, according to a Missourian analysis of dispatch data, are for tripped security alarms. Police spend up to 46 hours per week responding to them.
The average alarm call takes about 18 to 20 minutes to handle, and at least two officers must respond, which means a lot of resources are going toward these calls, Bernhard said.
“For the most part, I think we need to go and respond to alarm calls because there’s always the potential that something happened or could happen,” said Sgt. Bruce Houston, who works the night shift. “But most of the time, it’s a huge waste. We should be out there looking for the bad people committing crimes.”
Houston estimates that he responds to security alarm calls three to six times a night. In the 16 years he’s worked as a Columbia police officer, only once or twice has an alarm response resulted in an arrest.
Once, responding to an alarm at an antique mall, he thought he saw someone inside and decided he was actually looking at a cardboard cutout figure. The next day, the burglar was found hiding in the ceiling above a bathroom.
But that's the exception.
“If the weather is bad, like if there’s a storm, then it seems like all we’re doing is responding to alarms,” Houston said. “It’s between that and car accidents. And we probably respond to more business alarms than residential ones.”
Alarm calls fall into two categories. A standard burglary alarm detects only motion or a broken contact on a door or window. A robbery alarm is activated by an individual, signifying that he or she may be in a life-threatening situation or under duress.
“All alarms are under one priority,” Bernhard said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a residential alarm or a bank hold-up. They are all labeled as a priority two call. But the way we dispatch them is different — (different) tones are used.”
Sometimes it can take up to 40 minutes or more for police to respond to an alarm, and if something more urgent comes up in the meantime, they'll often put off the alarm call and respond to it after the more urgent issue.
Bernhard thinks that the kind of response you get — whether it's the police or an alarm company responding — doesn’t really matter.
“What matters is you have an alarm,” he said. “If you have an alarm, the burglar has less time to go in and steal your stuff. They don’t want to be caught.”
In most cases, the suspect is already gone by the time the police arrive at the business or home where the alarm was activated. When asked if he thought security alarm responses should be a private service, Bernhard would say only that the Columbia Police Department is exploring options and solutions.
One way departments in other cities have cut back on responding to false alarms is through what's called Verified Response.
Here's how it works: When an alarm goes off, security alarm companies verify that a burglary or robbery is taking place before contacting police. But to do this, alarm companies have to hire security guards to physically verify a break-in.
Some cities, including Salt Lake City, Utah, and San Jose, Calif., have adopted Verified Response, though a few have since abandoned the policy. After 10 months, Madison, Wis., stopped using Verified Response because of a spike in burglaries.
In Dallas, Texas, on the other hand, burglar alarm calls and business burglaries declined in the first year of implementing Verified Response. The department later abandoned Verified Response, acquiescing to complaints from the community, and went back to responding to all alarms.
While running for mayor in the 2011 Dallas election, retired Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle said Verified Response was good public policy but bad politics. According to the Dallas Observer, Kunkle had advocated for Verified Response when he was the Dallas police chief.
Salt Lake City has been using the policy for 13 years and claims to be the first city police department to try true Verified Response.
"We were responding to 10,000 alarms a year, and 99.7 percent were false,” said Shanna Werner, the alarm coordinator for the Salt Lake City Police Department and the originator of Verified Response. "I thought there must have been a better way to do things."
Since implementing the Verified Response policy, the Salt Lake City Police Department has cut alarm responses by 90 percent, according to a report from the department. The report also boasts: "Verified Response freed 8,482 officer hours” and saved "$508,920 in associated personnel costs."
Crime rates have also decreased in Salt Lake City in the 13 years the Verified Response policy has been in place, though there's not necessarily a correlation.
The community's reaction to the news that police wouldn't be the first to respond to alarms was not welcomed, Werner recalled.
"I got about 100 phone calls when we first announced it," she said. "But the basis of the whole thing is education. Our city council had no idea that alarms were 99 percent false."
The Salt Lake City Police Department still responds to panic, duress and robbery alarms.
"Private security guards responding to burglar alarms can be there much quicker than we can, though," she said.
Not here, not now
Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton said he is not a fan of Verified Response because he doesn't like the idea of police not responding to burglar alarms. But the department is looking into proposing improvements to the city ordinance to deal with the high number of false alarms, he said.
"One change we would like to write in the ordinance is if a person has a history of not taking care of their alarm, or if it often goes off as a false alarm, then we would stop responding," Burton said.
The City Council would have to approve the changes to the ordinance. Failing that, there's no back-up plan for now, Burton said.
The False Alarm Administrative Fee section of the city ordinance states that a person or business will be charged a $100 fee after having three false alarms within a 30-day period, but when initially asked about the fee, Bernhard didn't know if anyone was even collecting the money.
The city has a procedure to collect the fee. The Finance Department sends out an invoice to the companies or individuals who have exceeded the number of false alarms, and they are billed. Each month, if the bill is not paid, a statement is sent showing the outstanding amount due.
This year, the city took in an estimated $7,300 in alarm fines, said Janet Frazier, controller of the city's finance department. The money collected goes to the city's general fund.
In the past, security alarm companies in other cities have not been known to be huge fans of Verified Response either. The same can be said for Michele Spry, co-owner of Midway Electric, a local electrical contracting company that also offers security system installations.
"I don’t know how (it) would work because you would have security guards running all over Columbia to verify alarms," Spry said. "I understand the Police Department’s problem of wasted resources, but I don’t have an answer for that."
She sees a potentially huge liability for security companies.
"What if there were a robbery in progress and that person is killed?" she said.
Bernhard said police would rather respond and have it turn out that everything's okay rather than risk ignoring a dangerous situation. But the system needs tweaking.
"When it comes down to it, the Police Department’s first priority is to protect the people," Bernhard said. "There needs to be some kind of response to alarm calls, and the best way to do it is to prevent false alarms."
As for the shortage of officers in the Columbia Police Department, there simply isn't enough money to add more officers in the city budget at this time, Burton said.
"The hiring of a police officer, or any other city employee, is a 20-year obligation on the part of the city," he said. "It would be irresponsible to make that commitment without a reasonably reliable funding source."
Graphic by Joey Fening
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.