By Dave Levinthal
The Dallas Morning News
DALLAS, Texas — Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert and Police Chief David Kunkle clashed Wednesday on whether the city should repeal its "verified response" burglar-alarm policy.
City Council members, meanwhile, appeared generally split on whether to reaffirm or repeal the policy, which requires business owners to confirm independently that a break-in has occurred before police officers will investigate — either by using private security guards or driving to their businesses themselves.
Wednesday's debate among council members foreshadowed a formal verified-response vote, which the council is expected to hold Wednesday.
"In my opinion, the program has generally worked the way we have anticipated it. I don't know of any increase in crime that can be attributed to verified response," Chief Kunkle told the council.
"It's the wrong policy from the pocketbooks of the people of Dallas," Mr. Leppert said. "I think it's the wrong policy in sending a message of where we're going to go in the future. And I think it's clearly the wrong message in how we're talking to our citizens and what the role of the police department is in protecting them."
Burglaries down 0.6%
The pointed words came as staff informed the council that commercial burglaries have decreased in the year since the verified-response policy went into effect, in March 2006.
Proponents say the policy conserves already scant police resources and note that more than 97 percent of sounding burglar alarms in Dallas are false. Opponents counter that the policy leads to increased burglaries and jeopardizes the safety of businesspeople.
Between February 2006 and March 2007, Dallas experienced a 45 percent reduction in burglar-alarm calls and saved $1.56 million in manpower costs, according to city staff's briefing to the council. It also notes that fees charged for false alarms decreased by $1.19 million.
Business burglaries declined by 0.6 percent during a one-year period that ended Feb. 28, according to the presentation to the council.
Several council members on Wednesday made firm declarations in support or opposition to the verified response policy, which a previous council passed by an 8-5 vote in December 2005.
"You and I are on completely different wavelengths on this," District 13 council member Mitchell Rasansky told Chief Kunkle on Wednesday. "These businesses pay taxes. They're entitled to police response. It's just wrong what we're doing. ... We don't want to go back to the old Wild West."
District 12 council member Ron Natinsky said: "I don't want to waste any resources. But if Dallas businesspeople believe their property is being burglarized, they want a DPD officer to show up. That's what they believe they are paying taxes for."
But District 6 council member Steve Salazar cited a recent situation in West Dallas when a suspected robber attempted to escape police. Up to 30 officers flooded the area and ultimately caught the suspect.
If police officers were elsewhere responding to false burglar alarms, the robbery suspect might have escaped, Mr. Salazar suggested.
"I have to disagree with you that perception is reality," Mayor Pro Tem Elba Garcia told Mr. Natinsky. "I want a police department that operates effectively and efficiently."
District 5 council member Vonciel Jones Hill called verified response "an excellent idea that should be continued" and said that she would "rather have my officers going to a true priority one emergency than a false alarm."
Several council members, including District 3's Dave Neumann and District 9's Sheffie Kadane, spoke about verified response Wednesday but didn't commit to one side or the other.
'Up in the air'
Chris Russell, president of the North Texas Alarm Association, which opposes verified response, said he's pleased with Wednesday's discussion and believes the council is open to repealing the policy.
Several council members on both sides of the issue have criticized Mr. Russell's association for aggressively lobbying staff and elected officials. Mr. Leppert said the association clearly has a financial stake in verified response, and he warned his colleagues to be skeptical of information provided by association members.
Mr. Russell, however, says that his alarm company has actually made money through verified response, in part by providing private security guards to customers.
"This is not a money issue. We're here representing the interests of our customers. You have people responding to their businesses with guns. It's not a safe scenario," Mr. Russell said.
As for the verified response vote, Mr. Leppert said: "It could go either way. There are still a few [council members] who are up in the air."
The issue: Verified response requires business owners to verify independently whether sounding burglar alarms are legitimate before Dallas police will respond. More than 97 percent of activated burglar alarms in Dallas are false. Police still respond to all residential alarms, as well as to panic-button alarms at commercial properties.
What opponents say: The policy leads to increased burglaries and jeopardizes the safety of businesspeople. They also note that Dallas lost $1.19 million in fees charged for false alarms between March 1, 2006, and Feb. 28, 2007.
What proponents say: The policy conserves scant police resources, allowing officers to respond to more pressing emergencies. They cite a 45 percent reduction in burglar alarm calls and savings of $1.56 million in manpower costs from March 1, 2006, to Feb. 28, 2007, compared with the previous year.
The next step: On Wednesday, council members probably will debate and then decide whether to reaffirm or repeal verified response, which the council originally approved by an 8-5 vote in December 2005.
Copyright 2007 The Dallas Morning News
Dallas leaders clash over police response to business alarms