Top Cop Takes on the Alarmists 

Halting his department's response to home burglar alarms is practical, according to Fremont's police chief. Payback is more like it, his critics say.

"Dumber than a horse turd," wrote one of the people he swore to protect and serve. Another accused him via e-mail of having been "born in a cave." Despite such ridicule, Fremont Police Chief Craig Steckler happens to be the envy of top law-enforcement officials around the state.

The reason for both the scorn and the admiration is that Steckler has boldly announced that Fremont will become the first city in California to stop responding to burglar alarms -- unless someone actually spots a burglar ripping off a home or business. His plan, scheduled to take effect March 20, has garnered local and national headlines, while sparking angry outbursts from alarm-industry reps and home- and business owners who say he might as well as hang up a giant banner on Fremont Boulevard that reads "Burglars Welcome."

Steckler isn't about to budge. For decades, burglar alarms have been a pet peeve of cops. That's partly due to the sheer number of alarms going off day and night; Fremont police had to respond to seven thousand last year alone. More specifically, it has to do with the astronomical false-alarm rate. Nationally, more than 90 percent of the time cops are dispatched to burglar alarms, they arrive to the apologies of a sheepish homeowner.

There's no denying the bogus calls waste police time and money. Nearly 99 percent of alarm calls in Fremont last year were false. The problem is so bad that police chiefs in other California cities, including Oakland, Vacaville, and Los Angeles, have contemplated following Steckler's lead. But they've backed off after recognizing the likely political fallout from voters fearful of their homes being invaded. "Politically, the city council and the public would have been against it," said former OPD Chief Richard Word, who now runs the Vacaville Police Department. Oakland City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente put it bluntly: "We would not consider doing what Fremont is doing."

Steckler has faced no opposition from city leaders. The Fremont city council and the mayor are backing him even though hundreds of constituents are showing up to public meetings to decry the plan. Why the sudden political spine? It turns out developments over the past few months have given Steckler an ideal stage from which to say no to burglar alarms. His critics call it payback, yet it may not be a stretch to say the burglar alarm industry and Fremont voters had it coming.

Steckler's get-tough stance took root about five years ago, when he first attempted to address the problem. He decided back then to issue permits for alarm owners as way to offset the costs of sending officers on false-alarm calls. Steckler estimated that there were at least ten thousand alarms in Fremont, but he didn't know who owned them all. So he requested subscriber lists from the three-hundred-plus alarm companies that do business in Fremont. They promptly turned him down.

The alarm companies argued that their client lists included private information, such as addresses and cell-phone numbers. That information, they correctly noted, would become public under the state's open records law if handed over to police. The companies' real fear was that, once their subscriber lists were in the public domain, there would nothing to stop rivals from poaching their customers.

Steckler had no legal recourse, so he continued to study what other cities were doing. He considered issuing fines against alarm owners who had multiple false alarms in a year -- Oakland and Los Angeles have adopted that tactic. But he discovered that collecting fines can be time-consuming and expensive; scofflaws often have to be taken to court. Steckler finally settled on a proposal after reading a white paper put together by a national group of police and alarm-industry officials.

One of the options the False Alarm Reduction Association presented was for police agencies to fine alarm companies for each false alarm. It would then be up to the companies to collect fines from their customers. Steckler presented this plan to local alarm-industry reps last summer, but they immediately told him it was unfair and unlawful, and responded with a five-page legal memo detailing their arguments.

In a recent interview, Steckler expressed frustration over the companies' response. The chief said the companies basically left him with no other realistic option than to implement his current plan of simply not responding to alarms unless there was some witness or other evidence that a burglary was in progress. The plan is known in police circles as "verified response."

Some alarm company reps now believe Steckler is getting back at them for their past disagreements. "It's my personal opinion that he has made up his mind that alarm companies are villains and they're getting filthy rich on the backs of police," said Mike Salk, vice president of the East Bay Alarm Association.

The companies aren't the only ones complaining. Key opponents of an unsuccessful tax measure on the November ballot say Steckler's plan is nothing short of revenge. "Payback. Call it what you want," said Dennis Wolfe, a leading foe of Measure V. "Actions speak louder than words."

The 6 percent utility tax would have raised at least $20 million annually for the cash-strapped city. Fremont officials said the money was essential to close the city's budget gap and ease the sting from $20-plus million in cuts two years ago. Although Measure V didn't earmark the money for police and fire services, city officials assured voters that much of it would be used for those purposes. Fremont, however, is home to a strong antigovernment sentiment -- the measure's critics convinced voters that they were already overtaxed, and that their politicians couldn't be trusted.

Throughout the fall campaign, council members had warned that without the new tax revenues, the city would be forced to make more painful cuts. Now that Measure V has been shot down, Mayor Bob Wasserman says voters can hardly expect Fremont's already-lean police department to waste time responding to noncrimes. "I would call it a natural consequence," he said.

Some Measure V opponents believe Steckler, the mayor, and the council purposely chose the burglar-alarm plan as the first significant new service cut because it's such a hot-button issue. "Yes we knew there would be cuts -- we're not stupid," said Wolfe, a frequent critic of the council. "But the cut did not have to be so spectacularly visible -- other than to draw attention."

The mayor's role in the burglar-alarm flap, and its timing, is hard to overlook. Wasserman, who was elected mayor in November, served as the city's police chief from 1976 to 1992, during which time he hired Steckler personally. "When I was chief, I fought with the alarm industry, too," he allowed. Steckler acknowledged that having his former boss in the mayor's office has given him more confidence to step forward with his plan: "There's no question that he understands the problem."

Only 23 other cities across the nation have gone to verified response, and it's too early to tell whether it results in more burglaries. As in Salt Lake City, Steckler wants the alarm companies to respond to most alarms with private security guards. That way, his department, which he said has about half the officers per capita of other large cities, will be freed up to do other police work. "Given the choice of going to a real crime or a false alarm, you don't have to be a brain surgeon to figure out which one I want to respond to," he said.



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