Another Perspective

Stop! Police!

May you live in arresting times.

By 1.12.03

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Having been outwitted by a pair of itinerant snipers who killed six of a dozen victims in their county of Montgomery, Maryland, police of said county are trying to salvage something. They have formed a task force. Not to discover what made it so easy to kill at random in their jurisdiction, a status that still obtains, but to try to find out if any of those 70,000 tips they received during the October shooting rampage might lead to criminality.

Captain Nancy Demme, spokeswoman for the Montgomery County Police, says many of the tips were set aside during the shootings because they were irrelevant to the problem at hand. But now a task force of three officers has been assigned the task of winnowing through the tips with the aid of Maryland-National Capital Park Police and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. "There's a lot of information," says Captain Demme. "We would be negligent if we threw it to the wayside."

(Not thrown to the wayside was the erroneous tip that led police to search for a non-existent white box truck as the murder spree progressed, and the accused killers drove about unimpeded in a dark sedan.)

Jim Purtilo, a gun-rights advocate in the area, smells a rat. He believes many neighbors of law-abiding gun owners reported them as suspects merely because they owned firearms. "A witch hunt," warns Purtilo of the coming investigation. "A terrible allocation of resources." Purtilo figures if any real criminals were identified during the sniper investigation, surely they were arrested.

The recent holidays saw police in some communities introducing a new form of crime prevention. Bar owners in Reston and Herndon, Virginia, report police entered their establishments to question, test, and arrest patrons who imbibed too much -- no matter that they were peaceable and had no intention of driving. Some police claim this is not a new procedure, but bartenders say cops bellying up to non-offending customers is a new wrinkle and the bar trade organization calls it an "anti-alcohol jihad." They have until St. Patrick's Day to get this ironed out.

But there is another form of crime reporting that police are letting go by the wayside insofar as possible. Burglary -- more exactly, burglar alarms. They are the bane of police departments from one end of the country to the other. Why? Because, like those 70,000 tips piled up in the drawer of Montgomery County Headquarters, they so frequently lead nowhere. They are false alarms.

Los Angeles Police are embarked on a new program. They estimate 92 percent of the alarms are false. (At least there is no perpetrator around after the alarm sounds.) And they simply will ignore burglar alarms from here on unless they are "Verified Burglar Alarm Cases." What form of substantiation is required isn't spelled out. Perhaps the burglar must pick up the phone and say, "Yes. It's me." (They never say "I" as they should.) Or perhaps the home owner must race downstairs through a hail of gunfire and make the verification call himself. Los Angeles police will make one exception: alarms from gun stores will be treated as verified from the get-go.

The disdain for burglar alarms is felt by authorities in Montgomery County, Maryland, which now taxes them and is increasing the fine for a second-offense false alarm to $100. During a public meeting to discuss the alarm business, a veteran police officer offered a unique reason why they should be banished. They are dangerous, he said, because police responding figure the alarm is false -- it so often is-- and approach the premises casually. But one of these times, he cautioned, the alarm will be real, and the policemen stand to get hurt!

So let the alarm ring, unless of course, the old man in that house happens to have a firearm, in which case we'll be right out. With 'cuffs. For him.

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About the Author

Reid Collins is a former CBS and CNN news correspondent.