By Anne E. Schwartz for   Published Aug 24, 2004 at 5:03 AM

The recent announcement by Milwaukee Police Chief Nannette Hegerty that officers will respond only to verified burglar alarms is less alarming than the number of false activations with which police have had to contend for more than a decade. More alarming still is what all those false calls mean to taxpayers.

The change means police officers will respond to burglar alarms only after they have been verified, either by the alarm company, the alarm owner or another responsible party who shows up on the scene. The exception to the rule is the activation of a "panic button," which is pushed by the homeowner to signal an immediate and dire emergency.

Police will continue to respond to those alarms as their first priority. Unless a panic button has been activated, or if there is a door ajar, police are unable to enter a home when they respond to a burglar alarm; they must wait until a key holder arrives to let them in. And a minimum of two police officers is dispatched to an alarm, Hegerty says.

False alarms are a problem for city of Milwaukee taxpayers who rightly expect their police officers to respond to real calls for help.

According to the MPD, in 2003, 27,331 of 28,346 alarms were false -- 96 percent of the total. Those kinds of numbers have been repeated each year, dating back to 1990 when the Milwaukee Common Council voted to require alarm companies to be licensed and to levy fines to alarm holders with false alarms, MPD says.

Hegerty's announcement struck at the business bottom line for the alarm companies. But what the companies are not acknowledging is the impact on taxpayers. It's easy to scare people with talk about putting public safety services in jeopardy. Talk about limiting local government spending, and the first thing pols tell the citizenry is how they're going to have to cut the police and fire departments. People are willing to pay to keep those services top-notch and responsive -- and rightly so.

The alarm response issue is simple enough: while Milwaukee police officers are responding to yet another mistakenly activated alarm -- as 96 percent of them are -- other calls are being pushed to the side. It's a problem that demands a solution.

The Wisconsin Burglar and Fire Alarm Association acknowledged in a letter to alarm companies in the state that it supports the passage and enforcement of a responsible alarm ordinance, and newspaper editorials have endorsed the suggestion of increased fines. But increased fines alone are not the right solution. More fines don't do much to put that cop on the street where he or she belongs.

Sure, customers don't mind footing the bill for their own false alarms because they feel that's part of the protection they pay for. But private alarm companies don't have the right to use our public safety professionals as an added-value service for their businesses. In many states, alarm companies supplement their service with personnel who respond to an activated alarm. It's expensive, but it's the protection homeowners pay for.

Alarm companies can make their personnel available by setting up patrols while sworn police officers, paid for by all the taxpaying public, can engage in the kinds of preventive patrols that have been shown to reduce crime.

Anne E. Schwartz is a Milwaukee area author and journalist who covered public safety issues in Wisconsin for more than two decades.

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