Friday, July 16, 2010

Punishing the Innocent

On Tuesday evening I received an automated phone call from the city of Houston informing me that my burglar alarm permit would expire in 2 weeks. While some may appreciate a friendly reminder of such easily overlooked things, I am not one of them. Further, the phone call was more than merely a friendly reminder--it was also a threat. The city found it necessary to inform me that failure to renew my permit would result in a $500 fine.

According to the Burglar Alarm Ordinance, the purpose of permitting is two-fold:
  1. To reduce false alarms.
  2. To insure that burglar alarms are properly installed, maintained, and operated.
While this might seem plausible, the fact is that the ordinance does neither.

In 12 years I have never had a false alarm. I didn't have one before I was required to obtain a permit nor after. Further, the city has never inspected my alarm to insure that it was properly installed, is being maintained, or that I operate it properly. In fact, the only thing that has changed since the permitting process was adopted is that I must fill out a form and send a check to the city once a year.

The city claims that 95% of the alarms it receives are false and significant resources are tied up responding to these false alarms. I have no reason to doubt the statistics the city cites, but they are irrelevant.

If the city wishes to reduce false alarms, then it should be targeting those who send them. If the city wants to recover the expenses associated with responding to false alarms, then it should go after those who send false alarms. Instead, the city seeks to punish the innocent along with the guilty. More specifically, the city treats all of us as if we are guilty.

Consider the fact that my permit is still valid, yet the city found it necessary to harass me with a phone call. I have not violated any ordinance and the city has no reason to think that I will. But that did not stop the city from calling me and threatening to fine me for an action I have not taken.

Consider the fact that one of the proper purposes of government is the protection of individual rights and on the local level the police are the primary means of doing this. However, if I do not have a valid permit the police may refuse to respond to an alarm from my home. Which means, I could be beaten, robbed, or murdered, and the police would not respond because I do not have their permission to have an alarm in my home. This is morally reprehensible.

Statistically, the odds are overwhelming that an alarm reported to the police department is false. But what is true in general is not necessarily true of a particular. If 95 out of 100 alarms are false, the police do not know which 5 are not until they respond. It is horrible enough that the city forces us to seek permission to operate an alarm; it is infinitely more so when it refuses to protect our property and lives because we didn't obtain that permission.

If false alarms are truly a problem--and that appears to be the case--then punish the guilty. Fine those who needlessly consume valuable police resources. But do not make the rest of us criminals simply because we want to have an electronic device in our home.


Rational Education said...


Thankfully we do not have a permit procedure for alarms where I live, as yet anyway(!),considering all the ways we are less free compared to Houston.
Our county/city has had what in my opinion is a better solution to the issue --in one year if your house has more than I think it is one or two false alarms the city sends you a letter that the next false alarm will cost you money. This I expect would help most people take the care needed to prevent false alarms!

Mr. Moderate said...

The permit fee is how you pay for the infrastructure and personnel necessary to respond to your alarm. The fee helps make sure that I don't subsidize your alarm system, as I choose not to have one.

For false alarms, after the third one in a 12 month period, I would either revoke the alarm permit, or fine the owner a large sum.

There was an article a few weeks ago that asserted that the response to alarms should come from the monitoring service, not the police. cities that have implemented that policy have decreased false alarms to near zero, and placed the cost on those who desire alarms systems. Sounds like a good idea to me.

Brian Phillips said...

We are allowed several false alarms, after which fines kick in. Your system makes much more sense--the guilty pay.

Mr. Moderate--
As far as I understand it, if you have a monitored system then the call to the police comes from the alarm company. I imagine that that does greatly reduce false alarms. However, not everyone has a monitored system (I do).

I appreciate the fact that you don't want to subsidize my false alarms. I don't want you to. But I don't want to subsidize those who have false alarms when I have none.