Security companies are suing the city of Sandy Springs over a new false-alarm ordinance, claiming it violates their constitutional rights by fining them for customers’ mistakes.
The federal lawsuit was filed March 12 by the Georgia Electronic Life Safety & System Association (GELSSA) and two alarm companies, A-Com and Safecom. As defendants, it names the city, Mayor Rusty Paul, City Manager John McDonough and all councilmembers voting at the time of the ordinance’s July 2017 passage.
“If this unconstitutional ordinance is allowed to stand, our industry will face this same type of issue from other communities who have the mistaken belief that fining alarm companies is an effective way to deal with alarm issues,” said GELSSA President Dan Gordon in a press release.
In a written statement, the city said the ordinance is a necessary response to the alarm industry’s “antiquated methodology,” “gross negligence” and failure to take responsibility for “improving a very broken system” with a 98 percent false alarm rate. And the city blasted a security industry press release that satirically likened the city’s appeals process to ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ for its “audacity to insult” the police officers who have to respond to false alarms.
“The city has tried for a number of years to work with the alarm industry to reduce the false alarm rate,” the city’s statement says in part. “Rather than work towards a solution, the alarm industry blames its customers and accepts no responsibility for improving a very broken system.”
City officials also discussed the results of the ordinance at the March 6 City Council meeting, less than a week before the lawsuit was filed. Police Chief Ken DeSimone said that since the ordinance took effect in October, false alarms were down significantly – from 99 to 49 in February –and companies had been fined a total of $428,000, of which $135,000 had been collected.
At that meeting, some officials expressed concern for a section of the ordinance that places customers on a “do not respond” list of non-compliant alarm companies without their knowledge. McDonough said a policy change on notification was in the works. Paulson asked the broader question of whether the ordinance was having its intended effect of making security companies more responsible in general.
“I think alarm companies are in, I don’t want to say denial…I think in outrage mode,” Paul said in response. “I think we have their attention.”
The city has had the industry’s attention since the contentious City Council meeting last summer that instituted the major legal shift to put alarm companies, rather than alarm-users, on the hook for registration and fines. The ordinance requires the company that installs and services the alarm to register it, and puts that company on the hook for false-alarm fines. Those fines escalate quicker: $25 for a first offense; $250 for the second and third; and $500 for all subsequent offenses. In addition, a location will go on the non-response list if it has four false alarms within any two-year period. Direct calls to 911 from those locations would still receive a police response.
Alarms are considered false when they come from devices that use automatic systems or call centers to contact 911 about a fire or crime emergency that turns out to be nonexistent. False alarms are a perennial and significant problem in the industry, especially because residents or business owners may accidentally trigger their own alarms in a variety of ways. The problem is common enough that a private company created a program – called “CryWolf” – to help cities register and track false alarms, a service that Sandy Springs uses.
The city says it spends hundreds of thousands of dollars a year responding to false fire and burglar alarms in terms of staff time and vehicle maintenance. However, many security companies representatives attended that council meeting last summer to say fining companies isn’t the answer and could drive them out of business. Some company owners at that meeting debated Paul, who threatened to have some removed for applauding or grumbling aloud. Among the company officials in attendance was Gordon, who also runs a Buford alarm company, and said the industry likely would file lawsuits.
Now that lawsuit has arrived. According to a press release, the plaintiffs are receiving advice and financial support from the Texas-based Security Industry Alarm Coalition (SIAC).
“There is no question that this type of unconstitutional ordinance has the potential to be a major disruption to our industry,” said Stan Martin, the coalition’s executive director, in the press release. “The city of Sandy Springs is completely out of step with modern alarm management practices. They passed an ordinance that we believe is unconstitutional because it makes alarm companies responsible for the actions of a third party they do not control.”
The lawsuit claims the ordinance violates the constitutional right to due process in several ways. The main complaint is being responsible for customers’ mistakes. The lawsuit also complains that the system penalizes companies by ruling alarms “false” when the company cancels them before police are actually dispatched, and for continuing to fine companies for false alarms even after they are put on the “do not respond” list.
Another due-process claim is the appeals system, which involves CryWolf and the police department. SIAC’s press release likens the process to “the type of small-town ‘justice’ portrayed as comedy on the ‘Andy Griffith Show.’
“When someone received a ticket from Sheriff Andy Taylor and asked to speak to the judge, Griffith would pull out another sign from his desk announcing he was also justice of the peace,” the press release continues. “The appeals process for the actual Sandy Springs ordinance is just as troubling as Mayberry’s fictional justice system.”
That remark drew outrage from the city in its written statement.
“While depending on public safety personnel to fulfill its business goals, the alarm industry has the audacity to insult those same police officers, referring to Sandy Springs Police as ‘small town,'” the statement says. “The Sandy Springs Police force is an outstanding agency in the state’s sixth-largest city. This is no small town. We have an impressive success rate, despite the fact that our officers are forced to spend an inordinate amount of time responding to the gross negligence of the alarm industry, [and] their inability to monitor themselves and utilize modern best practices”
The lawsuit says the city’s system amounts to an illegal tax and is driven by a desire to generate revenue. It claims all of the defendants “have engaged in official acts oppressively, maliciously, corruptly and without authority of law.”
The suit seeks damages to compensate for the fines already imposed, plus attorney and court fees, and for a ruling prohibiting enforcement of the ordinance. For a full copy of the legal complaint, click here.
The following is the city’s full written statement regarding the lawsuit, as provide by city spokesperson Sharon Kraun:
The city’s false alarm ordinance was created in response to the alarm industry’s antiquated methodology of conducting business, in which a 98-percent-plus false alarm rate is deemed successful. There is no other industry where such a level of failure is accepted as “business as usual.”
Alarm companies have a contractual business relationship with their customers. They are willing to monetize that relationship, yet do not feel a need to properly inform and train customers, in addition to managing and servicing their systems, resulting in the ongoing abysmally high rates of false alarms.
The city has tried for a number of years to work with the alarm industry to reduce the false alarm rate. Rather than work towards a solution, the alarm industry blames its customers and accepts no responsibility for improving a very broken system.
While depending on public safety personnel to fulfill its business goals, the alarm industry has the audacity to insult those same police officers, referring to Sandy Springs Police as “small town.” The Sandy Springs Police force is an outstanding agency in the state’s sixth-largest city. This is no small town. We have an impressive success rate, despite the fact that our officers are forced to spend an inordinate amount of time responding to the gross negligence of the alarm industry, [and] their inability to monitor themselves and utilize modern best practices.
It is public safety which bears the brunt of the inefficient system of the alarm industry.
The city takes its responsibility to ensure the safety of all of its citizens and its fiscal responsibility in managing taxpayer dollars seriously. We stand by the policy, which simply holds alarm companies accountable in providing a level of service which includes accurate reporting and a reduction in false alarms.
Update: This story has been updated with comment from the city.