False alarms lead to real bills in Seattle, even after break-ins

SEATTLE — For every 100,000 people in the city of Seattle, nearly 5,500 will be burglarized, vandalized, or the target of theft.

That's more than twice the property crime rates of Los Angeles or New York.

Just this week, the Seattle Police Department released its year-end crime statistics claiming home burglaries were down 11 percent in 2017.

But not all break-ins are being reported by officers.

Scroll down to continue reading

More news from KIRO 7


And some citizens who have been targeted by criminals recently told KIRO 7, they were victimized twice; first by the suspect, then by the Seattle Police Department’s False Alarm Program.

I know how they feel.

In December of 2016, the alarm at my Seattle home sounded while I was away for the evening. My licensed, private alarm company called my cellphone, and I returned home immediately.

Two Seattle Police officers eventually responded and confirmed what appeared to be the mark of a crow-bar under the same window that tripped the alarm. They confirmed it appeared to be an attempted burglary but they did not write up a police report --- even though the officers told me a home two blocks away from mine had been burglarized by someone who gained entry using a crowbar on a window.

That crime happened a half-hour before my alarm sounded.

Because there was no SPD paperwork filed indicating what appeared to be an attempted, real crime at my home, my alarm company was fined $115 dollars by the City of Seattle’s Finance and Administrative Services Department for a “false” alarm.

I wondered if anything similar had happened to anyone else in Seattle, so I filed this Public Disclosure Request with the Seattle Police Department in September of 2017:

"I request access to and copies of all letters/emails/written correspondence to the Seattle Police Department contesting false alarm charges billed to citizens' alarm companies from January 1, 2014 to September 29, 2017. 
I also request all statistics compiled by the Seattle Police Department regarding the False Alarm Program during that time period, including but not limited to the total number of false alarms and the number of false alarms that were successfully contested during the same time period."

The City of Seattle responded that the statistics I requested were not available. But the correspondence from people contesting false alarm charges has been rolling in.

I learned that Janice Culpepper’s burglar alarm went off when someone apparently tried to get into her Queen Anne home through the basement door.

“They tried to crowbar it on the outside and it popped,” Culpepper said as she showed me the door that was damaged.

“They broke this frame, then it made the alarm go off."

The Seattle Police Department responded but told Culpepper there was no evidence of an attempted break-in; something she disputes.

It’s a steel door and the door frame had been broken,” Culpepper said. “It cost me a little over $1,000 to fix the door."

Culpepper also paid a $115 fine passed along to her private alarm company from the City of Seattle’s Finance and Administrative Services Department --- for a so-called "false" alarm.

She bristles at a charge for “false” alarm.

"There was truly someone who tried to break into my house, broke my door and set off the alarm," Culpepper said. "So it was a real alarm."

Culpepper isn't the only one frustrated by the automatic false alarm charge.

A Magnolia homeowner received a false alarm charge, even though officers said her open back window was what "the intruder used to enter the house" triggering "the motion detector."

The intruder triggered "the alarm a second time" while exiting the back door.

A Ballard business owner disputed the charge passed along to her by writing in an email to the SPD’s False Alarm Program that, "It wasn't a false alarm because the back garage door window had been broken."

A Queen Anne man wrote: "When our alarm went off in the middle of the night, police officers 'did not find an intruder,' but the back door was ajar."

He ended his email by writing, "Can you help me understand how this was categorized as a false alarm charge?"

Sally's Beauty Supply in downtown Seattle was charged for two false alarms. While disputing both charges, the business’ private alarm company wrote, "One event was a glass break alarm by someone throwing a bottle through the window. The other was caused by someone driving through the store."

Then there's the night the alarm went off at Luisa's Mexican Grill north of Ballard.

When owner Scott Sellers arrived in response to the alert from his private alarm company, he found the back door to his restaurant open.

In addition to his front sign being smashed in, "The cash registers had been turned upside down and there was some damage in my office,” Sellers told KIRO 7.

He said nearly $20,000 in damage was done that night, and he submitted the SPD incident report to his insurance company in order to recover some of the damages.

However, "After the fact, we ended up getting a bill from our alarm company for a false alarm call,” Sellers said.

Sellers eventually received a refund when his alarm company successfully contested the ‘false’ alarm charge but Janice Culpepper never got her money back.

She told KIRO 7 she’s frustrated she would have to prove an alarm was valid, despite obvious damage to her home.

“It seems like that is kind of the default position, instead of assuming that someone might have broken in,” said Culpepper.

I took the concerns of Culpepper, Sellers and the people revealed in the Public Disclosure Request to the Seattle Police Department.

I asked Seattle Police Sergeant Sean Whitcomb what evidence is needed in order for responding officers to determine whether an alert is a real or false alarm?

"Typically, an alarm response, what you’re going to do is travel the perimeter of the house, or business, or structure and just look for those points of entry where someone might have tried to get in,” Whitcomb said.

According to the Seattle Police Department Manual, “If no physical evidence is found, or physical evidence is not documented, the alarm is considered false and the alarm company will be fined.”

There was clear evidence of break-ins at Culpepper's home and Luisa's Mexican Grill -- still, both were fined.

Whitcomb told KIRO 7 officers do the best they can to investigate every alarm and search for evidence.

But he also admitted that evidence isn't always found, especially in the dark.

Since Whitcomb admitted evidence isn't always apparent, I asked whether it's fair to automatically pass along a bill to someone who is already paying taxes to support the police, and also paying the monthly cost of an alarm company?

“I can tell you, that is the system that is in place,” Whitcomb responded. “If there’s ever a bill that was issued in error, then certainly, there is a mechanism in place to have those fines waived.”

I also asked whether the SPD has enough officers to investigate every alarm that comes in.

"In theory, yes, because they are calls for service," Whitcomb said. "We'll go. Sometimes it's sooner, sometimes it's a bit later but the whole point is, we're responding to provide a public safety service to people who believe that perhaps a crime has been committed."

The SPD’s False Alarm Program has been in place since 2004, when “the Seattle Police Department responded to an average of 25,000 alarm calls a year with over 97 percent of them being false,” according to the Department’s website.

I asked Whitcomb whether the city’s growing population and increase in property crimes necessitate an update to the system – or at least a second look at automatically billing the home or property owner when an alarm goes off.

“I think it’s fair to say that the City and the Police Department are constantly updating what we do, how we do it,” Whitcomb responded.

In my case, I needed a copy of an SPD incident report in order to contest the charge passed along to my private alarm company by the City of Seattle, which was then passed along to me. So I called the SPD's West Precinct and asked one of the officers to come back to my home to write up a police report.

My charge was then waived.

After sending an email to the False Alarm Program to contest her fine, Culpepper said she gave up without a refund when she never received a response.

However, when I asked if she’d be willing to be interviewed for this report, Culpepper did not hesitate.

“You bet,” she told me.

“We pay for the alarm so police don’t have to deal with people breaking into our houses," Culpepper said. “But they need to have the courtesy to acknowledge that frequently, it’s going to look like a false alarm even if someone has tried to break in.”

I asked Culpepper what the point of an alarm system is.

"To deter people from breaking in!" she laughed.

For more information on Seattle's False Alarm Program: