It was what the Colorado Springs Police Department calls a Priority Three alarm: A minor incident “requiring a response that is dispatched based on the availability of patrol units.” What followed was the nightmare scenario dreaded by police, alarm companies and alarm users alike.
According to CSPD spokeswoman Barbara Miller, a security alarm was triggered at the home of David Dunlap and Whitney Butler at 11:10 a.m. on Jan. 14. The alarm company, ADT, then called Dunlap’s cellphone and left a message for him to call back. At 11:18, ADT called police to notify them about the alarm.
Based on department policy to reduce the burden of false alarms in the city, officers were not dispatched.
“We had no units available,” Miller told Security Systems News. “We do priority calls. … If there is a ‘crime in progress’ call [with a life-threatening situation], those are first. If it’s a human-activated alarm or a panic alarm, that’s also a high priority. We would respond immediately to that.”
At 11:25, Dunlap returned ADT’s call and was informed about the alarm, but he did not call police, Miller said. Thirty-five minutes later, CSPD responded to a report of shots fired at the couple’s Bassett Drive address. Police say Dunlap and Whitney were killed as they entered their home by 17-year-old Macyo January, who was arrested three days later and charged with first-degree murder.
Miller said the incident calls attention to a common and potentially dangerous oversight by alarm users: If an alarm is activated, they should not assume there will be an immediate response from law enforcement.
“Many times, the alarm company will notify the owner that their house alarm has been activated. If that person returns to his or her home to check on the alarm, they must be extremely cautious and vigilant,” she said. “For instance, if they notice a front door that might be slightly opened or a broken window, or see a suspicious vehicle parked outside their home, we would strongly recommend that they call 911 so an officer can check for a possible burglary in progress or burglary that just occurred.”
Miller said that Colorado Springs police will respond to any activation when there is evidence that a crime has been committed—“i.e., a responsible party is on scene and has told the alarm company there is a broken window at the residence or business. Another example would be an alarm service indicates they have video surveillance inside of the business and they can see someone inside of the location.”
Ron Walters, director of the Security Industry Alarm Coalition, told SSN that virtually all police agencies, even those with scaled-back response policies, handle human-activated alarms “at a fairly high priority.” That goes for video intrusion alarms as well, but as Walters pointed out, there is only so much a security company can do.
“Alarms are designed as a deterrent and cannot stop a crime from happening,” he said. “The best deterrent remains the threat of response by a well-trained and armed police official.”