Alarming response

Chico police, community discuss changes to law to reduce the number of false alarms

Chico City Manager Mark Orme holds the microphone to the phone so the audience at Wednesday’s Internal Affairs Committee meeting can hear comments by City Attorney Vince Ewing, appearing via teleconference.

Chico City Manager Mark Orme holds the microphone to the phone so the audience at Wednesday’s Internal Affairs Committee meeting can hear comments by City Attorney Vince Ewing, appearing via teleconference.

PHOTO by Meredith J. Graham

There was heated discussion Wednesday morning (Aug. 13) at a meeting of Chico’s Internal Affairs Committee, where police Lt. Mike O’Brien presented proposed changes to the city’s alarm ordinance. For his part, he said, it shouldn’t be up to the Chico Police Department to subsidize the alarm industry. In 2012, he explained, officers responded to more than 3,200 false alarms.

The issue stems from a seemingly abrupt decision by Police Chief Kirk Trostle to change the department’s policy for responsding to electronic alarms. On June 15, the department switched to a “verified alarm response” model—meaning, it requires either video or human verification of a crime before dispatching officers. The change caused an uproar in the community, with some arguing that it signaled open season for burglars. A committee of stakeholders was formed and further changes were offered—it was those changes that O’Brien presented to Internal Affairs, made up of City Council members Sean Morgan, Ann Schwab and Tami Ritter.

“The current system, which has not been functioning, has been to fine the alarm user,” O’Brien said. What he heard from alarm companies was that they’d prefer to be the ones fined, “and they will deal with those false alarms as an industry. I welcome that—I think it’s an excellent idea.”

His report included recommendations that alarm companies be fined $100 for the first false alarm requiring officer dispatch, $200 for the second and $300 for each subsequent report. A collection agency would handle the fines, and all the money would go directly to the Chico Police Department. If a company became delinquent in paying those fines, the department would cease to respond to any alarms from its customers.

About a dozen people spoke during the public comment period of the meeting, the vast majority of them representing the alarm industry. The consensus among them was that yes, something should be done to reduce the number of false alarms requiring police response. Most argued that they already do a good job of managing their customers and encouraging responsible use of alarms. Some even said they regularly “fire” customers who repeatedly set off false alarms. Others argued that despite their best efforts, it is impossible to ensure accidents—an open window, or a spider crawling across a motion detector, for example—won’t happen.

“I’m concerned about being fined from the get-go. Nothing is perfect. There are going to be mistakes,” one alarm-company representative said.

“The problem is, sir, that I can’t send my officers to respond to 3,000 mistakes of yours,” O’Brien said.

Jon Sargent, of the Security Industry Alarm Coalition, suggested that fining alarm companies could be unconstitutional based on a recent ruling in the Southern California city of Fontana.

“The judge there said that you cannot fine an alarm company for false alarms that they did not cause through unlawful conduct. It violates the Constitution and due process,” he said.

O’Brien countered that the decision was nonbinding for the city of Chico. Ritter posed the question to City Attorney Vince Ewing, who was present via conference call.

“Can you repeat the question?” he said. Then, “I would need to read the case before offering an opinion.”

In the two months since the verification policy was enacted (June 15-Aug. 2), the police received 321 alarm calls, of which only 26 were verified and therefore required officers to be dispatched. Of the 26, only four were deemed “criminally attached.”

“That is an almost 90 percent reduction,” O’Brien said. Others agreed that a verification policy should be in place.

Assistant City Manager Chris Constantin suggested the fines go into the general fund rather than directly to the police department to avoid any appearance of response based on getting paid.

In the end, the committee requested Ewing move forward with drafting an amended ordinance including the following: An enhanced verified call system; ascending fines of $100, $200 and $300 to be imposed on alarm companies, which can then pass them on to offending customers; outsourcing to a collection agency; and allocation of collected fines to the general fund.

The matter could come before the City Council as early as September, Ewing said.