Sandy Springs’ decision to halt police response on all burglar alarms from 39 companies is being blasted by a top industry official as treating citizens as “pawns to experiment” and giving information that helps “the bad guys.”

“They’re using the citizens as pawns to experiment on something they think is going to work,” said Stan Martin, executive director of the Texas-based Security Industry Alarm Coalition (SIAC). “…Even worse is leveraging customers’ and citizens’ systems that are totally innocent and trying to hold the entire alarm company hostage.”

Sandy Springs’ April 3 move was punishment for overdue fines under a controversial, and apparently revolutionary, new ordinance that puts alarm companies rather than customers on the hook for false alarms. SIAC is helping to fund a federal lawsuit that claims the ordinance is unconstitutional.

Brookhaven passed a similar ordinance, apparently following Sandy Springs’ lead, that went into effect Jan. 1. Over four months later, a city spokesperson says Brookhaven’s version is still in the “implementation phase.” Martin said he believes that city may be following his suggestion to delay enforcement while waiting to see how Sandy Springs fares in court, though city spokesperson Ann Marie Quill said, “That’s not the impression I’m getting.”

Sandy Springs claims its ordinance is necessary to stop thousands of false alarms that tie up police officers and cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in wasted time and vehicle wear-and-tear.

Martin says the city aims to make far more in fines than it spends on false alarms, and refused to negotiate on a widely accepted model ordinance that targets a small percentage of alarm customers who create the vast majority of false alarms. Instead, he said, the city focused on collective punishment and the fining of companies for customers’ actions, which the lawsuit claims is an unconstitutional violation of the right to due process.

The 39-company ban is just another example, said Martin, likening it to charge car dealerships for their customers’ traffic tickets. “It feels like they’re trying to poke a stick in the eye of the alarm companies… Everything seems to be retaliatory, but they are avoiding the central issue of constitutional due process,” he said. “I guess they’d rather try this in the media instead of the courts.”

And he criticized the decision to publicly name the companies whose entire customer list will be a no-response list for burglar or “intrusion” alarms. (Fire and panic-button type alarms will still get a response.)

“…I’m particularly disturbed [that]…what they’ve done is provided a list of alarm companies [on the no-response list] to the bad guys,” Martin said.

Sandy Springs Police Chief Ken DeSimone has said that alarm customers on the no-response list should not be overly concerned, because nearly 100 percent of alarms are false and police rarely catch burglars due to alarms anyway.

But Martin said that the point of noisy home alarm systems is to be a deterrent to burglars, not a way to catch them in the act, and that value is reduced by creating and publicizing a no-response list.

Martin acknowledged that false alarms are an industry problem, and inherent to the automated scare-factor designs of alarm systems. But, he said, about 2 to 3 percent of customers create the vast majority of false alarms.

“Most [systems] are working perfectly every day as a deterrent to the bad guys,” Martin said. “It’s the small percentage that are causing those alarms, and yes, it’s a fact that of the few [alarms] you get in a city, most of them are not going to be valid. It’s the way systems are set up because they’re set up to deter burglars.”

SIAC has worked with various national police organizations on a model ordinance to reduce false alarms, Martin said. It involves targeting those problem customers with better training, better equipment, and if necessary, fines and placement on a no-response list.

But, Martin said, Sandy Springs officials refused to compromise in meetings with major alarm company representatives last year about the proposed ordinance. He was not in those meetings, but said he heard about them.

Martin said the city’s response to concerns and counterproposals was, “‘We got the money in the bank. Come get us.’…There was no give or take, no negotiation.”

The Sandy Springs ordinance is clearly shaking the alarm industry. The city modeled the ordinance on those in a few other cities, notably including Seattle. Martin said that Seattle’s ordinance, passed about 15 years ago with industry approval, indeed puts companies on the hook, but does not involve a no-response list and that the industry would not support it now, finding it flawed in the end.

“There’s no one that has an ordinance like Sandy Springs,” Martin said.

In Brookhaven, Martin met about a month ago with City Attorney Chris Balch. Martin said he wanted that city to consider giving up its ordinance due to the due process concerns, but the attorney appeared willing only to negotiate on the schedule of fines, which are already lower than those in Sandy Springs. “During the meeting, the city attorney indicated to Mr. Martin that we were going to proceed with the ordinance as intended,” said Quill, the city spokesperson.

In a SIAC press release, Martin called on citizens to protest to Sandy Springs city government.

“We are prepared to fight that battle in court, but sometimes, the best way to stop politicians from meddling in the affairs of private citizens is to let them know that their actions will cost them votes,” Martin writes in the release, adding that his group “would encourage every citizen of the Sandy Springs community who is being negatively affected by this unconstitutional ordinance to get on the phone, write letters, attend City Council meetings, and let their elected officials know how they feel.”

Update: This story has been updated with further comment from the city of Brookhaven.

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John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.