Greensboro, N.C., axes 20-year-old false alarm ordinance?

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Thursday, December 3, 2009

GREENSBORO, N.C.—Officials here have taken the unusual step of doing away with the long-standing fine schedule attached to its false alarm ordinance. According to the Greensboro city manager’s office, the exemption—slated to be in place through the end of the year—could become permanent. At the end of October, city councilors, upon the urging of a concerned citizen, voted to temporarily suspend the usual $50 fine, assessed against residential and commercial false alarm offenders after five false alarms. They have since restarted the fine schedule for commercial alarm offenders, but still waive all fines for residential alarm systems.

Assistant city manager Denise Turner said the decision to reverse the ordinance was a reaction to a mini-crime wave, and the effectiveness of the move as well as the fate of the ordinance reversal will be discussed at the Dec. 15 city council meeting. “We will discuss whether or not to make this a permanent thing,” Turner said. “Typically false alarm fees do usually have a perceived effect on false alarms.” Turner said the main concern was citizen safety, and councilors didn’t want potentially endangered citizens to feel impeded by the threat of a fine.

Police are skeptical of the ordinance reversal’s ability to have real impact. “The ordinance itself has been in place since 1989,” said GPD assistant chief Anita Holder. “Looking back at the data from 1989, there were more alarms that would have come through over those years. If I had to make a guess about an impact one way or the other, I’d say having an ordinance where a fine is attached for false alarms reduces the number of overall calls that come in for dispatch.”

Stan Martin, executive director at SIAC, said the association is there to help where it can. “We’ll probably have [someone] go in there to support the chief’s position (and ours) that fining is necessary,” Martin said in an email interview. “However, it is a strong reminder that police are there to respond to the needs of the community and if the citizens, through city council, are willing to spend those resources that way, that’s their choice. Our job is educate them on the downside or consequence of that decision.”

Holder said the intent of fines was not to make money but to curtail false alarms, which waste police resources and cost citizens money through taxation to pay for that waste. “We’ve not gone down the path of getting into monitoring of the alarms. The private security industry has that pretty well covered,” Holder said. “The other path we’re not going to go down is the concept of outsourcing the billing—our infrastructure’s already in place to do that in a pretty effective way. There’s no plan to suggest to council that we establish a licensing fee or annual fee for every alarm. This all means savings for citizens.”

Holder said police representatives would be at the Dec. 15 meeting to present comparative false alarm data to the city council in hopes of resolving the issue. Holder is also slated to meet with SIAC’s law enforcement liaison Glen Mowrey on Dec. 18.