The very instant the front door of American Legion Post 1255 on Eiler Road near Belleville was kicked in, an electronic signal registered at a Swansea alarm company.
A computer at Barcom Security recorded the time -- 32 minutes and 48 seconds past midnight on Thursday, Sept. 13. Two sirens, one inside the Legion's barroom and another on the roof, began blasting a deafening sound. Barcom telephoned the hall and, receiving no answer, notified the St. Clair County Sheriff's Department 58 seconds after the sirens went off.
Ordinarily, the crooks could have been expected to hurriedly grab what they could and flee before cops showed up.
But not these guys. They took the time to yank the siren from the rooftop and the other from an inside ceiling and to search for cash in six, separately padlocked file cabinet drawers that they ripped open, presumably with a crowbar. They also dragged off a 250-pound ATM machine that turned up smashed in the city of Madison a few days later.
They might have been emboldened by the realization that the Legion hall is located within the jurisdiction of the sheriff's department, whose deputies still do not respond to residential or commercial burglar alarms.
Even though Barcom immediately called the cellular phones of Legion officials who had keys to the building, the burglary wasn't discovered until about 9:30 a.m. the next day when the Legion's financial officer Dennis Russell, who was getting his hair cut, said he happened to check his phone's voicemail.
"When I got to our building, the doors were wide open and the place was a mess inside. I thought there had been a fight," he said. At first I walked right by where the ATM had been and didn't notice it was gone."
A few years ago, Sheriff Mearl Justus cited national figures, which show that 98 percent or more of burglar alarms prove to be false, said Capt. Steve Johnson, who heads the department's investigations section.
Looking for a way to offset the budgetary layoffs of 12 deputies, the sheriff instituted a policy of cutting the workload of his remaining officers by not responding to burglar alarms and, at least initially, not taking burglary reports.
"This is the sheriff's policy based on national trends he has seen," said Johnson. Justus is recovering from surgery and was not available for comment.
Nearly two years after the layoffs, the department still doesn't respond to break-in signals even though eight of the deputies have been rehired. However, the earlier policy of not taking burglary reports has been scrapped.
During the time of not answering alarms, the burglary clearance rate -- or the number resulting in an arrest or found to be false -- has plummeted. In 2010, the department's investigators cleared 38 of 268 burglaries or 14 percent. In 2012, they cleared 12 of 225 burglaries or 5 percent.
"Speculating on the reasons for lower numbers of burglary clearances is almost impossible," said Johnson. He said it is rare to catch a burglar during a burglary in process due to an alarm.
However, he said the policy of not responding to alarms, may not be permanent.
"We are constantly reviewing our procedures," he said, "and looking at the best way to allocate manpower."
Surrounding police departments, which were also faced with fiscal problems, still respond to burglary alarms despite knowing that an overwhelming percentage will be false. These include the Madison County Sheriff's Department and the East St. Louis Police Department, where recent financial concerns have led to significant layoffs.
Other police departments that still respond, according to a limited survey by the Belleville News-Democrat are Belleville, Edwardsville, Collinsville, Fairview Heights, St. Louis Metropolitan and the New York City.
John Kennedy, executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, said that despite the 98 percent alarm bogus rate, "I'd hate to be in the 2 percent and not have anyone show up. The taxpayers pay for this protection and they ought to have it."
Major Brad Wells, of the Madison County Sheriff's Department, said that even when an alarm company has contacted his dispatcher to report that the homeowner has been reached and the alarm is false, at least one deputy still promptly shows up to investigate.
"The homeowner or business owner will answer the phone when the alarm company calls and say, 'I messed up' ... But even when the homeowner has given us the proper (alarm) code, it's still prudent to at least send somebody to do a wellness check to make sure everything is on the up and up," Well said."
The reason is that a criminal could still be inside a home or business, he said.
"You may have somebody standing there holding a gun telling the homeowner to give the alarm company the proper code," he said. "Over the years I've been a police officer I've never had that happen. But it is within the realm of possibility."
Wells said that even in cases where an alarm scares the burglars and makes them flee, "we get some idea of where to look for the crooks."
And Johnson, the head of investigations for the St. Clair County Sheriff's Department, agreed that scenarios could develop where ignoring an alarm could put a resident or business owner in danger.
For instance, if a family sleeping in second floor bedrooms set the burglar alarm for downstairs and armed criminals invaded, they could be held at gunpoint and forced to tell their alarm company that it was a false alarm. Then crimes ranging from burglary to rape or even murder could occur without police even knowing.
"That is a possibility," Johnson said.
Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2625.