Debate Persists in Chico (Calif.) Over Verified Response Policy

The city is hashing out whether or not to fine alarm companies, among other details of a false alarm ordinance that was abruptly amended in June.

CHICO, Calif. – Heated debate continues in this Northern California city of 88,000 residents in the wake of the police department’s recent decision to adopt a verified alarm response policy. 

The controversy stems from a seemingly abrupt decision on June 15 by Police Chief Kirk Trostle to change the department’s policy for responding to alarm events, according to The department now 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, reports

A committee of stakeholders has been formed and further changes to the alarm ordinance were discussed this week at a meeting of Chico’s Internal Affairs Committee. During the meeting, Police Lt. Mike O’Brien said it shouldn’t be up to the police department to subsidize the alarm industry, reports. In 2012, he explained, officers responded to more than 3,200 false alarms.

“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.”

O’Brien’s 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, reports. 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.

Jon Sargent, an industry liaison representing the Security Industry Alarm Coalition (SIAC), 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.

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

“That is an almost 90% 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 moving 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.

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