Note: this is a horribly long blog post, and I apologize in advance, but there’s just not a short way to explain this one…

For some reason, Mayor Leppert hates the city’s verified response policy; on Wednesday, he has scheduled a briefing on the policy with the intention, as I understand it, of reversing the policy put in place by the city council last year. Verified alarm is something I know a little about, and I’m here to tell you the mayor is wrong on this issue and that not only shouldn’t the policy be changed — it should be expanded.

A little background: I am an appointed member of the Commission on Innovation and Productivity, a city-council appointed commission charged with looking at different ways to improve efficiency at the City of Dallas. Not surprisingly, there are plenty of ways to improve efficiency at the city, and I say this not sarcastically but honestly, because it’s a big bureaucracy with lots of employees and lots of bosses, so there are definitely more efficient ways to do certain things.

Awhile back, our commission took a hard look at the burglar alarm response situation in Dallas, and we determined that forcing police to respond to residential and business burglar alarms was foolish: In 2004, the police department responded to 64,000 alarms, and 97.2% (60,100) of the alarms were false. Another interesting fact: 86% of Dallas businesses and residents don’t even have alarms, so all taxpayers were subsidizing the 14% who have alarms by allocating approximately 45 officers (full-year, full-time) to the job of doing nothing but responding to mostly false alarms. Not surprisingly, the average response time for a run-of-the-mill, non-injury burglar alarm was 32 minutes. As you would expect, not too many bad guys decide to hang around and wait that long for the police. At one point during our discussion with police officers and city employees, I asked the obvious question: Of the 64,000 alarms responded to in 2004, how many resulted in an arrest? As best as I can recall, the answer was "one". One arrest out of 64,000 trips; if that’s not an inefficiency, I don’t know what is. Bolstered by the opportunity to reclaim 45 officers for more pressing duties, such as responding more quickly to citizen call-ins that weren’t 97.2% false, our committee recommended to the city council that police quit responding to both residential and business alarms, unless an actual break-in had been "verified" by the alarm company monitoring the alarm. Naturally, this required the alarm companies to staff up and quickly respond to 64,000 alarms per year. Guess what? They weren’t too excited about spending their time and money doing that, and they started howling.

To make an already long story short, political pressure from the alarm companies and from neighborhood residents (many of whom just didn’t understand the issue) caused the council to cave in on residential alarms (the police are still first responders), but the council did approve the change in responding to business alarms — so for the past year, Dallas police officers haven’t responded to any business alarm unless that business’ alarm company had previously verified that an actual break-in had occurred.

The end result? From March 1, 2005, to February 28, 2006 (prior to the verified response policy change), Dallas experienced 7,054 bonafide business burglaries. The following year, from Marcy 1, 2006, to February 28, 2007, the city experienced 7,012 business burglaries — so changing the business alarm response policy had absolutely no imapact on the number of business burglaries in the city. Even better news – police responded to 25,000 fewer alarms (all false), resulting in the city being able to reallocate approximately $1.5 million in police wages (the equivalent of 24 officers) to other police-related tasks and reducing (by 9.5%) overall response time to real crimes.

The long and short of this: Not only should the council leave the current verified alarm policy in place, council members should also vote to expand the policy to residential alarms, too. Doing so would probably more than double the savings (resulting in another 24 officers dealing with actual crimes more quickly) while not likely increasing the number of residential burglaries in the city. If there’s ever a time to get this policy implemented, it’s now: None of the council members have to run for re-election again for about 18 months, a pretty long time in city politics.

So the real question is why Leppert is so dead-set on changing a policy that is actually working? To be fair, he was grumbling about the policy during the campaign, but he also promised to look at everything with a fresh set of eyes. From what I’m seeing so far, his eyesight appears to be pretty myopic on the verified response policy and on the Trinity River project. And those are about the only two big projects to pop up so far…