False Alarms Mean Big Money to Some Iowa Cities

August 6, 2013

Des Moines is pulling in big money from false burglar alarms, but some police departments are growing frustrated by the high number of unnecessary calls.

The Des Moines Register reports Iowa’s largest city collected $138,000 for nearly 2,397 billable false alarms last year. The Des Moines suburb of Urbandale also charges for false alarms and last year collected $40,800.

Des Moines started charging for false burglar alarms in 2008, and since then the number of alarms has remained relatively flat. Last year, of the 3,806 burglar alarms that Des Moines police responded to, 90 percent were false.

The city can charge up to $500 for an initial alarm each year, then up to $750 for each following alarm.

Des Moines police spokesman Sgt. Jason Halifax said officers get most frustrated by repeated false alarms to the same location.

“Most officers just take it in stride and know a certain percentage will be false,” Halifax said.

But West Des Moines Police Lt. Jim Barrett said he worries that those repeat calls can be dangerous to officers.

“The bad thing about false alarms is it can tend to make officers complacent,” Barrett said. “That’s a dangerous situation if you think it’s going to be false but it turns out to be a good alarm where someone’s broken into a residence or a business.”

Des Moines considers all alarm top-priority calls, but police in West Des Moines and Urbandale give them a lower status.

Both departments will send an officer if one is available, but if not, an alarm may have to wait. Last year, 95 percent of burglar alarms were false in West Des Moines and 91 percent were false in Urbandale.

“It used to be that any kind of alarm we’d make it a priority,” Barrett said. “But as you can see by the numbers, it just doesn’t make sense to go as a priority one call.”

False alarms are an issue throughout the nation. A report by the Washington-based Urban Institute found that such calls take 20 to 40 minutes of an officer’s time. Such calls, the organization argued, “waste millions of dollars of officer time, and detract from attention to reducing crimes.”

The Des Moines business with the most false alarms was Sam’s Riverside Inc. auto and truck salvage.

Despite the city charges, co-owner Gary Galinsky said the company’s security system, with cameras and motion detectors, has drastically reduced burglaries.

“When we didn’t have the cameras, we were having a lot of theft,” he said. “Now, people know they’re there and it has reduced theft tremendously.”

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