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City: This better be an emergency


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Greenwood business owners and residents will face a new fine if their security alarms go off when there’s no emergency or if they repeatedly call 911 for no good reason.

The city plans to start charging property owners $50 fines if police repeatedly have to go on runs for false alarms or false 911 calls. The goal is to get property owners to fix faulty alarm systems, not to collect more money, Greenwood Police Chief John Laut said.

New Whiteland police and the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office also are looking at imposing similar fines but have yet to bring proposals forward. The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department already charges fines of $25 to $200 for each false alarm after the first written warning.

Greenwood police were called out to false alarms at the same business 21 times last year and have long wanted to do something about the problem, Laut said. He proposed a fine as a deterrence after an annual review determined that police spend an average of $100,000 in tax dollars each year responding to false alarms, and only about $500 a year responding to alarms where a crime was taking place.

The Greenwood City Council gave preliminary approval to fines against property owners for false alarms, and one more approval is needed.

Laut said fines would not apply to alarms set off during storms. People also could appeal any

violations to the Greenwood Board of Public Works and Safety, which could choose to waive the fines.

The city’s new rule and fines also would target people who repeatedly call 911 when they don’t have an emergency, city attorney Krista Taggart said.

For instance, parents would be subject to a fine if their children dialed 911 three or more times accidentally or while playing on the phone, Taggart said. A $50 fine would give them incentive to sit down with their kids and talk about not playing with the phone, so they don’t call dispatchers on a line that’s supposed to be reserved for emergencies, she said.

People shouldn’t be afraid to call 911 if they have any concern that might not check out, such as if they see something suspicious late at night. Greenwood would fine people only for false calls, hoax calls or calls about non-emergencies, Taggart said.

“There won’t be any fine if someone thought there was someone beating on the window and it turned out to be a tree branch,” she said. “There won’t be a fine if someone is mistaken about a suspicious car parked outside.”

Laut said his focus was to get property owners to fix faulty alarm systems, and he wasn’t as concerned about false 911 calls. Taggart said she added that provision because the proposed rule is modeled after a regulation in Fort Wayne and because other communities have similar fines.

Non-emergency 911 calls can tie up emergency lines and waste officers’ time, Laut said. For instance, people will call repeatedly about an eighth-grader who didn’t go to school that day, he said.

Greenwood likely wouldn’t fine anyone who gave their kids a deactivated cellphone without realizing it can still be used to call 911, Laut said. That’s because police usually are unable to trace such calls back to their origins, beyond the closest cell tower, he said.

Parents also would get two opportunities to take the phone away from the child before they’d face any fine, Taggart said. The city will issue written warnings for the first two false alarms or false 911 calls in any calendar year, she said.

Only offenders who have called 911 three or more times in a year with no good reason will actually have to dig into their wallets to pay a fine, Taggart said.

The city wants to discourage repeat offenses because responding to false alarms costs money, Laut said. Police typically send one officer to a home or store and two officers to a bank, and they sometimes use their sirens and flashing lights.

Greenwood police have responded to 34,023 false alarms since 1998 and answered only 168 alarms for an actual emergency or crime during that period.

Officers need to spend their time on more critical work, such as responding to actual crimes and patrolling neighborhoods to make sure they’re safe, Laut said.

He estimated that police have spent $1.5 million in property tax dollars on responding to false alarms over the past 15 years after the costs of gas and officers’ salaries are factored in.

Greenwood police spent $7,686 responding to alarms that were set off because of actual emergencies over the same period, he said.

Laut said he didn’t know how much revenue the proposal would bring in.

The department did not have data on how many places they had to return to three times or more for false alarms in a year.

“This is a behavioral correction, not a revenue generator,” Laut said. “I don’t even have the financial data.”

Council members approved the measure 7-0. Members Bruce Armstrong and Tim McLaughlin were absent.

The proposal is expected to come up for final approval at the council’s next meeting in April.

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