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November 23, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, November 23, 2005

When the police stop coming . . . When the police stop coming . . . (November 23, 2005)

Banks, HP garage, Starbucks, galleries and school district on list of those with too many false alarms for city

by Bill D'Agostino

For months, when the burglar alarm went off late at night at the Avis Rent-a-Car on El Camino Real, owner Ben Cord had the unenviable task of driving 20 miles from his home in Burlingame to make sure the alarm was triggered falsely, not by a real criminal trying to swipe a Lexus.

That's because the Palo Alto Police Department had stopped responding to his business' alarm.

"Knock on wood, nothing happened," Cord said.

A few of the city's banks, including Wells Fargo and First Republic, were without similar protection for some time this year, as were the Achievekids private school, the famed Hewlett-Packard garage, four of the city's six Starbucks and the Palo Alto school district's main office, according to a list requested by the Palo Alto Weekly and provided by the city. (All of the businesses mentioned in this story have since returned to getting a police response to their alarms.)

Palo Alto police stop responding to a burglar system for six months if an alarm is triggered falsely more than five times in the period of a year. Approximately 100 businesses and 67 residents were in that state last week.

Scofflaws also face fees for multiple false alarms -- $100 for the third false alarm in a 12-month period, $150 for the fourth, and $200 for all subsequent false alarms.

Some business owners who had temporarily lost police response said the rule was an annoyance but understandable, while others had stronger words.

"It doesn't make me feel safe that my merchandise is not being protected," said Mark Pinsukanjana, the owner of the Modern Book Gallery on University Avenue. "I think the police should take it more seriously and should help to protect us. Honestly, there's not a lot of crime in Palo Alto."

Palo Alto city officials defend the rule as necessary, given the high number of false alarms officers receive.

"We want our officers free for emergency calls," said Sheryl Contois, the police department's technical-services coordinator.

Councilman Bern Beecham said the ordinance provides motivation.

"Without some policy on this, businesses have no incentive to ensure their alarm system is properly set up and those who use it are properly trained in how to use it," he said.

Businesses and homeowners can appeal the non-response decision to the city's hearing officer.

There were 2,681 false alarms in Palo Alto in 2003-2004. That's a drop of 40 percent, from 4,464 in 1999-2000, according to a city report. The City Council strengthened the ordinance in 2001, requiring businesses and homeowners to pay for permits registering their alarms and instituting the ban on officers responding to repeat offenders.

City staff is currently considering again revising the ordinance. A recommendation will land on Police Chief Lynne Johnson's desk in coming months. Then it's her decision whether to forward it to the council for approval.

Placing businesses on "non-response" appears to be common practice among California municipalities, according to a scan of numerous cities' Web sites. Many simply rely upon fines and education to reduce the number of false alarms, though.

The City of Fremont police recently made headlines by becoming the first California department to stop responding to alarms entirely.

Palo Alto's alarm ordinance made headlines earlier this month because the Stanford Theatre announced it had delayed the opening of a movie memorabilia gallery after police stopped answering the yet-to-be-opened gallery's burglar alarm.

David Packard, the president of the nonprofit that runs the theater, alleged the false alarms were primarily the result of the gallery's construction, but city officials said the problem of false alarms had been repeatedly occurring at the theater for two years.

Officers are scheduled to return to responding to the gallery's alarm in March 2006.

Staff Writer Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at

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