Should Police Respond to Alarms?

By Michael Betten, CPP and Mitchell Mervosh

Police response to private burglar alarms isn’t the best use of public law  enforcement resources, which are already stretched thin.

In response to the high rate of false burglar alarms at homes and businesses, law enforcement agencies around the country are adopting a policy commonly referred to as verified response. It means that criminal activity must be identified by either private security officers or through some type of electronic surveillance before police will dispatch personnel to the scene of an alarm. Since the vast majority of security systems cannot verify criminal incidents electronically, private security will generally be the source of the verification.

A major concern raised by homeowners, business owners, and local politicians in jurisdictions where this approach has been discussed or adopted is: Will police switching to such a policy increase the level of crime? But a better question is whether police response to private burglar alarms—which generally have a high false-alarm rate—is the best use of public law enforcement personnel, who are already stretched thin.

Consider that in the United States, on average, private security outnumbers law enforcement four to one. Furthermore, law enforcement’s responsibility is to the community as a whole. It must make tough choices about where and how to deploy its limited resources.

The arguments against devoting resources to private-alarm response are many. For example, when police do respond to private alarms, they rarely find anything. For example, an editorial in the Los Angeles Times in January of 2003 indicated that the LAPD responded to more than 120,000 alarm activations, but those many calls yielded only one arrest. That story is repeated around the country.

If the community could benefit from law enforcement making apprehensions, then the response to alarm activations could be justified. But what the evidence clearly indicates is that unverified response pulls resources to areas where they are not really needed, which inevitably means that those limited resources have been pulled from areas where they are needed.  

The alarm industry would no doubt counter this argument by pointing to statistics about deterrence. For example, the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association (NBFAA) states on its Web site that “Homes without security systems are about three times more likely to be broken into than homes with security systems. Businesses without alarm systems are four and one-half times more likely to be burglarized than commercial locations with electronic security in place.” The NBFAA further cites support from 90 percent of police officers who advise that “alarms deter burglary attempts.” 

The research in support of alarms being a deterrent is overwhelming, and we do not dispute it, but there is little to no evidence to support a police response over a private security response. Quite to the contrary, Paul Cromwell, a prominent criminologist from Wichita State University, illustrates the point with a statement from a burglar, who said that whenever an alarm was activated while he was entering a building, he didn’t know whether the police or private security would be the ones to respond. And he didn’t care—he only wanted to be gone before they arrived.

Cromwell further found that many burglars avoided alarmed locations and targeted residences or businesses that were not protected. Cromwell quoted a burglar as saying, “Why take a chance?  There’s lots of places without alarms. Maybe they’re bluffing, maybe they ain’t.”

The National Crime Prevention Institute has likewise long endorsed alarm systems as the best available crime deterrent. This educational institution realizes that most criminals fear alarm systems and prefer to break into an unprotected building, rather than risk capture by a hidden sensor.   Nowhere is it stated or even implied that the police must respond for this deterrent effect to apply.

Witnesses are also a deterrent. The crime prevention concept of Neighborhood Watch, implemented in the 1970s by many police agencies and still used today, emphasizes neighbors being more vigilant about “watching out” for one another and calling the police if they see suspicious activity.  The effectiveness of this practice has been supported by criminologists Richard Wright and Scott Decker from the University of Missouri—St. Louis. In their book, Burglars on the Job, they wrote: “As well as avoiding heavily policed areas, most offenders wanted to steer clear of neighborhoods in which the residents appeared to be keeping an eye out for each other.”

Today, some homeowner communities and business improvement districts take the Neighborhood Watch concept to the professional level by hiring private security to patrol their common grounds. The concept is the same. These officers observe and report to police only when something appears suspicious, allowing the police to bring resources to the scene only when a clear need arises.

Another factor is often overlooked with regard to whether it makes more sense for police or private security to respond to private alarms. A good number of alarm responses by the police are to systems installed in private dwellings or single family homes. One area of concern for law enforcement has to do with Fourth Amendment restrictions on the search of a private residence. The question arises: Can officers enter a house solely on alarm activation if no signs of forced entry exist? A court ruling from the area of Portland, Oregon, suggests that, in fact, law enforcement officers cannot enter a private dwelling based solely on the alarm activation. 

The case State of Oregon v. Damon Lamon Stoudamire involved the police responding to an alarm at a residence while finding an exterior door open, but no signs of forced entry. The

police entered the residence and

in searching for an intruder located illegal drugs. The find resulted in charges being brought against the homeowner, who then filed a lawsuit claiming that it was an illegal search and seizure procedure, violating his Fourth Amendment rights.

The court ruled that the search was, indeed, unlawful and the defendant prevailed. The prosecution appealed the case to the Oregon Appellate Court, which this March upheld the lower court ruling that the search was unlawful. A justice on the court said “…no court would have authorized a warrant to search the house, because no court could have concluded that there was probable cause to believe that a burglary was in progress or had occurred.”

What exception to the Fourth Amendment applies to the police when responding to an alarm on a residence when no signs of forced entry or criminal activity exist? The police can only enter a dwelling on exigent circumstances, probable cause, consent, or a life-safety concern. 

Entry by law enforcement to a private dwelling always raises Fourth Amendment issues. By contrast, a response by private security would not, because it would be the fulfillment of a contractual agreement between the homeowner and the security provider.

By far the best evidence in supporting law enforcement switching to a verified response is provided by those agencies that have implemented the policy. In recent years, several major law enforcement agencies have switched to the policy, most notably the Salt Lake City Police Department (SLCPD).

The SLCPD implemented a policy of not responding to unverified alarm activations in September of 2000. The SLCPD reported faster response times to those alarms by the guard services than the police could deliver. The police department also discovered that their response times to priority-one, or emergency, calls decreased, officer availability increased, and their overall burglary rate decreased slightly.

Another example is Santa Monica, California, a case study cited in the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s report “False Alarm Perspectives: A Solution-Oriented Resource.” That case involved the Santa Monica Protective Association, which increased its use of private security to respond to alarms in its residential neighborhood following the murder of two school-aged children who interrupted a burglary in progress.

Under the association’s policy, when an alarm is activated, it rings at the security company’s monitoring center. The security company first calls the police, then dispatches its officers, who are patrolling nearby and generally arrive first on the scene. If the private security personnel find nothing, they notify police, who can then abort the call. If there is trouble, private security  is responsible for containing the situation until police arrive. The report notes that the arrangement saves the police some runs.

Concerns that verified response will increase a homeowner’s or business owner’s vulnerability to crime are misplaced. In reality, without verified-response policies, police become complacent about replying to alarms that they expect to be false. Thus, owners are left with no response at all. With verified response, by contrast, owners know to arrange for private security to initially observe and police know that if they get a call in that case, it merits a response. That’s true security.

Michael Betten, CPP, and Mitchell Mervosh are security consultants with MMCS and Associates. Betten and Mervosh have over 40 years of law enforcement experience and serve on the Kansas City ASIS International Chapter’s Educational Committee.



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