Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Sgt. Bobby Ladson has driven the same beat in upper Northwest for the past nine months. It’s a pretty quiet neighborhood, dense with comfortable houses and upscale retail outlets. Most of the police calls, Ladson says, involve thefts of wallets or cellular phones, stolen from the purses and luxury cars of daytime shoppers.
But at about 7 a.m. every morning, Ladson’s officers get called to a reported burglary at a Wisconsin Avenue jewelry shop. “We go to that store so often, we’ve gotten to know the people by name,” says Ladson. The jewelers, though, aren’t in fact the city’s most frequent crime victims. They just trigger the alarm when they attempt to disarm itevery morning. Sometimes, says Ladson, the alarm sounds two or three times before his shift ends.
Ladson has gotten used to the false alarms but is nonetheless required by law to send two officers to the scene, who spend up to 30 minutes checking for intruders. “It takes up an enormous amount of time,” Ladson groans.
At a time when interim Chief Sonya Proctor is kicking cops out of their desk jobs to ensure the safety of the citizenry, a squadron of 2nd District officerswho cover most of the area north of Massachusetts Avenue and west of Connecticut Avenueis serving as a private security firm for area businesses.
Ladson and his officers would love to issue citations to owners of faulty systems and ignoramuses who can’t punch in their entry codes. A 1980 law mandates such fines, but the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), which takes eons just to process building permits, took until last week to promulgate them. Police can’t do anything until that happens.
“This is one reason why we don’t have enough [officers] on the streets,” says activist Kathy Smith, who writes a newsletter, Street Smart, on public safety. “They’re tied up doing things like this.”
And how. Second District Commander Jacqueline Barnes has been tracking false burglar alarms in her district for yearsand reports that there are plenty to track. According to her figures, the 2nd District had 78,972 calls for service in 1997. Over a third of those callsmore than 22,000were responses to false burglar alarms. That’s an average of 60.3 false alarms a day, enough senseless make-work to occupy four officers per hour. “That has a tremendous impact on our manpower,” says Barnes, who says false alarmism is a citywide plague.
Complaints from Barnes and Northwest activists prompted Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who heads the committee that oversees the police department, to lobby DCRA director David Watts to expedite the false-alarm regulations.
“The legislation is in place. We just have not been given the go-ahead to enforce that,” Barnes says. “I really don’t know what the delay is with that.”
She’s not the only one. Officials at DCRA are apparently just as clueless. “This is something the police department and DCRA are supposed to be working out,” said Lorena Cabaniss, legislative adviser at DCRA. “I am not 100 percent clear about the law itself.”
In 1980, the D.C. Council passed a law calling for regulations on licensing burglar alarms to homes and businesses, as well as citations for falsely triggering them. It wasn’t until 1987 that DCRA followed through on the council’s mandate and published the licensing rules. But in its seven-year rush to get the regs out, the agency somehow left out a few detailsnamely, all the provisions authorizing fines for false alarms. (DCRA blames the omission on MPD.)
A decade later, in May 1997, a DCRA official put the finishing touches on the council’s 17-year-old law. The false alarm provisions were forwarded to the council for approval and became law last September. But the wait wasn’t over: DCRA had to make the new rules binding by publishing them in the D.C. Register, which they finally did last Friday. Now, MPD officers can slap all those wolf-crying merchants with $100 fines.
In the meantime, Ladson’s officers have set up meetings with some of these businesses, hoping to teach them a thing or two about reading the instructions to their burglar alarms. Most of the false alarms result from malfunctioning systems or employee error. Bad weather or a high wind can set off some sensitive systems. There have even been isolated cases, says Captain Marcus Westover, where store owners intentionally triggered the alarm to get a quick police response. “[The finalized rules] are very much welcome,” Ladson says.CP