by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
February 5, 2003
L.A.'S FALSE ALARM BATTLE ENDS IN VICTORY FOR BRATTON
LOS ANGELES -- It was a battle royal from the beginning, but new Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Bratton has come off the battlefield nearly unbloodied and clutching a big war trophy - hundreds of police officers and hundreds of thousands of man-hours he freed from chasing a huge number of false alarms across a frightened city whose crime rate has soared in recent months.
With an 8-4 vote to receive and file the matter, councilmembers finally faced down a politically influential group of alarm companies that rallied their customers to attend a series of crowded, contentious hearings in council chambers. At the first of those in mid-January, 40 speakers opposed the policy and 15 others who signed up to speak against the policy waived their time. Only one speaker was for it.
The Los Angeles Police Commission had studied the matter since April 2002 and held several public hearings, but the companies and their customers complained the policy was a sudden shock. City Councilman Tom LaBonge, a City Hall veteran who supported the new policy, told a hostile audience that the former system - requiring officers to respond to all alarms within 45 minutes - had warped police deployment in Los Angeles for at least 25 years. LaBonge may have spoken at a substantial cost - he's raised thousands of dollars from security firms in recent campaigns - but he voted for the new policy twice.
Across the country, the New York Times reported in a front page article, police are spending $1.5 billion a year chasing false alarms. Led by Salt Lake City, though, some departments are changing policies that have resulted in a monumental waste of time and offer little deterrence. Salt Lake City was used as as an exemplar by both sides, with the security firms saying burglaries have soared there but the Times reporting a 1.96 percent drop since a verified alarm policy was instituted last year.
Bratton's war to free up an estimated 15 percent of the LAPD's patrol resources - about 75 uniformed officers, according to police commission executive director Joe Gunn - was almost lost at the very beginning. City lawmakers, themselves alarmed by the public response, voted 12-1 at their first hearing on Jan. 14 to assert jurisdiction over a Jan. 7 decision by the five-member Los Angeles Police Commission to stop responding to unverified home and business alarms.
Instead, Gunn promised, police will make verified alarms a high priority requiring a 10-minute response.
Across the 465-square-mile city many elderly residents were frightened that police would not respond to real break-ins and "panic buttons" - an ungrounded fear the alarm companies exploited in scary letters and in a vigorous campaign headed by one of the city's most powerful political strategists, Joe Cerrell. In fact, Gunn reassured them, "panic buttons" and fire alarms are exempt from the new policy and will still be treated as emergencies.
Also on the side of the security firms was the sister of Los Angeles Mayor Jim Hahn, Councilwoman Janice Hahn of San Pedro, who chairs the council's important Education & Neighborhoods Committee, the oversight body for new school construction and the newly-forming Neighborhood Councils.
On the other side was a lone citizen, the leader of a Neighborhood Watch group in Hollywood whose impassioned speeches at council meetings were repeated on local radio and television news programs and whose OpEd articles in the two largest daily newspapers buttressed what was largely a low-key, common-sense statistical effort by police officials. The mayor also backed Chief Bratton, and his support was crucial.
There was also one determined woman on the side of L.A.'s finest.
Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, whose San Fernando Valley district includes a large number of alarm owners, chairs the council's Public Safety Committee that oversees police matters, and cast the lone vote against taking the policy away from the Police Commission. The council then had to muster only 10 votes to veto the policy, and just eight to sustain it.
In the middle - inappropriately, some say - were the city's new layer of government, the 60 advisory Neighborhood Councils created by a change in the city charter approved by voters two years ago. For a time, it appeared that security firms had successfully lobbied Neighborhood Councils and got their support against the verified response policy. But Greg Nelson, head of the Dept. of Neighborhood Empowerment that runs the local councils, told the American Reporter that not a single one of the groups had formally voted to oppose it.
The statistics were appalling: police were responding to 125,000 false alarms out of a total of 136,000 answered, and in a year's time, made only one arrest as a result. Bratton, freshly imported from New York and unencumbered by the political baggage of his successors, defied the powerful alarm lobby and demanded the city change what he called on local tv an "insane" policy, requiring all alarms to be answered even though up to 98 percent of them were false - usually due to poor equipment, novice users, animals, wind, forgetful older users and failing batteries.
Councilmember Ed Reyes, whose district in Latino East Los Angeles has few alarm owners, came up with a suggestion at a critical moment early in the debate that turned out to make an enormous difference. Reyes asked for an overlay that would show where the alarms were sounding versus where the crimes were occurring.
The results were revealed in a Los Angeles Times article that came out the day of the second council public hearing on the issue, and shocked Council President Alex Padilla, who made a powerful and moving speech deploring a policy that left many of his district's residents saddled with high crime and limited police coverage.
Also backing the police commission was Jack Weiss, a young and energetic former Asst. U.S. Atty. who represents L.A.'s affluent West Side and whose district may have more alarms than any other. Even though he was inundated with hundreds of calls and letters from his constituents - most of them responding to scary letters from their alarm companies saying police would no longer be there for them if a burglar broke in - Weiss spoke out for the new policy while backing an alarm task force that will hold hearings and suggest changes before the new policy takes effect on April 15.
That task force, created Tuesday by the council, will be headed by the city's ultimate insider, Chief Administrative Officer Ron Deaton. Members are yet to be named. In a letter to the council, Police Commission chair Rick Caruso promised the panel will consider for adoption any task force recommendations it deems appropriate. That language was adopted largely to satisy Councilwoman Hahn, who fought to get the policy vetoed up to the very last minute but found support for her position had irrecoverably eroded by Tuesday's vote.
Hollywood representative Eric Garcetti, a freshman councilmember, voted with the majority to assert jurisdiction at the first hearing, but said he realized after looking at the Reyes overlay and the very small number of alarm owners in his district - the third-poorest in the city and one that also suffers from a shortage of police officers and rising crime - that the department's new policy would make far more sense, he told The American Reporter after the vote.
Garcetti had been heavily lobbied as a swing vote, he said. Like LaBonge and one other councilmember, he had not taken the free alarms provided by the city to the homes of elected officials. That gave him a distance from the issue that other councilmembers may not have enjoyed, and he said a Neighborhood Council in his district that was informally polled supported the new policty by a 3-to-1 margin.
Councilman Denniz Zine was one of the most eloquent in denouncing the alarm companies, many of whom have little capacity to respond, fail to ensure that their customers pay an annual $31 fee to police, and have promised for decades to do something about the problem. A former president of the Police Protective League and a reserve officer, Zine told of patrolling the West Valley on Christmas Day "responding to one false alarm after another, all day long." Zine thundered that the alarm companies had sold a sense of "false security" to customers and then abandoned them, but Zine's first two votes were with the alarm companies. On Tuesday, he supported the commission.
The vote that many security companies felt was a certainty for them was never cast, however. Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, whose Venice Beach district was reapportioned and got moved into the San Fernando Valley, was brutally attacked by a knife-wielding intruder a decade ago who slashed her throat and left her near death. Before she could hit her panic button, a Neighborhood Watch leader who heard her screams called police, and that call saved her - not the burglar alarm, she said.
Galanter has asked - and the task force will have to answer - how a person who may, as she was, be disabled by a burglar after an alarm is tripped can then verify the alarm. That question will likely haunt the task force throughout its two months of deliberations.
Galanter voted two weeks ago to take jurisdiction, then voted to maintain the policy but recast her vote a few minutes later - and was absent Tuesday.
The Police Commission has been forceful about saying that if the task force report is not presented within 60 days, the new policy will go into effect as is.