By Phil Trexler
The Akron Beacon Journal
AKRON, Ohio — Akron police soon will no longer respond to security alarms until someone verifies that help really is needed.
The shift in department policy is in response to decades of false alarms sounding from businesses and residences that city leaders say needlessly tie up police officers.
Police say that more than 98 percent of the 10,000 alarm calls received every year in Akron fail to produce signs of an actual crime.
The alarms, however, do tax the time of officers working for an already depleted force, police Chief James Nice said Tuesday while detailing his plans to Beacon Journal editors and reporters.
The policy change is expected to take place sometime early next year. By then, security system providers or their customers will have to verify the emergency before a police officer will respond.
"If it affected safety in Akron, I wouldn't do it," Nice said. "But 99 percent of the calls are [nonsense]."
Nice said officers will continue to respond to hold-up and panic alarms, such as those sent from banks, as well as residential alarms in which security companies verify an actual burglary was or is in progress.
Furthermore, Nice said, alarm calls will not be totally ignored.
The calls simply no longer will be dispatched to officers on the road immediately as they are now. Instead, the calls will appear on each police cruiser's computer terminal and officers will respond, if possible and as needed, he said.
Police believe their responses will be almost eliminated because in nearly 100 percent of the calls, no action is required because of false alarms.
Nice quoted statistics from a recent two-year sampling of 26,229 alarm calls that resulted in 489 police reports being generated and only three burglary-related arrests.
The department has been studying the issue for at least 18 months. Nice said the policy is consistent with changes departments across the country that are dealing with the high volume of false alarms have adopted.
Nice said the move is about efficiency. Alarms that are legitimately triggered tend to scare off potential burglars before police arrive, he said, adding that alert neighbors and outdoor lighting have proved better allies to police.
"We catch burglars, but we know we're not catching the criminal as a result of these alarms," he said. "They may be great at deterring crime, but we know we're not catching criminals because of them."
Instead of responding to alarms, Nice said, he wants his officers to focus more on being proactive and increasing their presence in city neighborhoods.
Officers to meet people
Nice said that once the new policy is put in place, officers will be required to spend some portion of their shift getting out of their cruiser and meeting and talking with residents.
The city estimates there are about 9,000 homes and businesses in Akron with security systems. They are served by more than 60 companies.
Once the policy takes effect, the alarm verification process will require a customer or provider to confirm the need, either in person or through audio or video observations.
According to Sonitrol, one of the nation's leading home and business security system providers, verification response policies have been adopted in more than 30 cities across the U.S. Opponents of such policies say the number is fewer than 20.
Conforming to new policy
The change in Akron will prompt the need for customers to contract with an alarm company that offers monitoring that conforms to the new policy. Akron now requires alarm companies and customers to register with the city.
The city fines residents and businesses for excessive false alarms, but police say the program barely generates $100,000 a year, far less than it costs to administer.
Mayor backs change
The policy change has the support of Mayor Don Plusquellic and City Council President Garry Moneypenny.
During the next several weeks, Nice, along with Moneypenny, Councilman-at-large Jeff Fusco, Deputy Police Chief Charles Brown and Capt. Paul Calvaruso will be meeting with various business, government, civic and neighborhood groups to explain the policy change.
Helping the city with the transition is Jeff Sutherland, who owns a security system provider in the Las Vegas area, where verified response policies went into effect in the mid-1990s.
Sutherland has been retained as a consultant to Akron. He said cities that have implemented similar response policies have not seen an uptick in burglaries or break-ins.
What Akron can expect, however, is some "push back" from some residents and counter-claims by some security system providers that will see their business model affected by new monitoring and verification requirements.
Sutherland said Akron should expect some groups to charge, as they did in Los Angeles and elsewhere, that the response policy will only trigger higher burglary rates as criminals will know police are not racing to the scene.
Others will argue that the change hasn't affected crime rates at all in other cities with similar policies.
In the end, Sutherland said, the rate of false alarms in Akron is similar to those across the country. And like Akron, he said, police agencies have struggled for decades to resolve the issue of false alarms.
"In 50 years, we haven't gotten the alarm rate down," he said.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Copyright 2013 the Akron Beacon Journal