Security systems are useful, but it doesn't hurt to have other weapons in your anti-theft arsenal

April 5, 2008 

The Zambo family's house in central Modesto was burglarized twice last year. Each time, someone broke down the front door while nobody was home.

The first time, a neighbor called 911 after spotting the front door open. The neighbor told police the thieves still might be inside, so several officers arrived with guns drawn and surrounded the house.

The thieves were long gone with several items, including the Zambos' laptop computer and a camera.

The family then installed a security system. But that didn't work. A few months later, when the Zambos were visiting family out of town, burglars struck again.

The security company notified police that someone had tripped the alarm. But without the ability to verify at that moment that thieves were inside -- through live audio or video -- the police didn't treat it as a high-priority call.

Instead, and in compliance with the "verified response" policy set in place in 2006 to cut down on false alarms that tied up officers, a Modesto police community service officer showed up at the home about 90 minutes later to write a report.

The lack of immediate response made the second burglary much tougher to take. John and Janeen Zambo thought the alarm would be enough to catch the criminals.

Janeen said she worries that the policy will lead frustrated victims to use violence to protect their property.

"People are going to do something to protect themselves," she said. "I don't like vigilante justice."

Modesto police Lt. Gary Watts said the department has to be judicious about dispatching its limited resources, so it prioritizes calls based on danger to the public -- a burglary in progress they can verify always gets a quicker response than one that can't be confirmed.

The policy change, which Watts said is working well, took effect November 2006 and reduced the number of false alarms Modesto police handle each month from an average of 800 to 80.

The policy does not affect police response to panic, robbery, duress, or other types of hold-up alarms activated by residents.

"It's great that now we have nondirected time that our officers can dedicate just to patrol," Modesto police Lt. Gary Watts said. "That's what it should be -- patrolling neighborhoods. It got to a point where our guys were running from call to call."

Watts said residents should safeguard their homes by installing exterior lights and locking all windows and entrances. He said residents should look at their security system as a part of their anti-theft precautions, not their only strategy.

"People should have a realistic expectation of what their alarm will or won't do for them," Watts said. "It's not a magic force field."

The Zambos have made improvements to protect their home and have been meeting with neighbors, agreeing to keep an eye out for each other. The couple said they realize police resources are limited, and that funding for police should be increased.

"I don't want them wasting their time (on false alarms)," Janeen Zambo said. "I need them to respond."

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or 578-2394.

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