Bike Stolen? Hold, Please HOWARD COUNTY

February 22, 1993

Bike stolen? Stereo lifted?

Call the police and they'll be there, right?

Don't count on it. Chances are you'll have to leave a message.

Starting today, Howard County police will no longer respond in person to minor calls involving such things as theft, vandalism and lost property. Two officers have been assigned to field such complaints by telephone. When they aren't available, you'll just have to wait for them to call you back.

No one should be surprised by this development. What with being able to punch a few numbers into the telephone to get one's credit card balance, or call the doctor's office and get lost in a voice-mail maze, the touch-tone phone has become the electronic jack of all trades.

But when a police station opts for telephone crime reporting, we have to stop and reflect on the implications.

One wonders whether hospitals will soon provide instructions on minor surgical procedures by phone. Or perhaps the fire department will find the telephone an easier way to dispense wisdom about that inferno raging in the kitchen.

Yes, we jest a bit. Telephone crime reporting is already a feature in many large cities in the country. And with the explosion of growth in Howard County, certainly such a system will allow for a more efficient use of manpower. There isn't much reason for a police officer to show up at the scene of a minor vandalism when there are more serious crimes and police work to do.

Police Chief James N. Robey said telephone crime reporting will allow his force to concentrate on "solvable crimes" and neighborhood patrols; no one could fault those goals.

Still, we wonder whether this system will lead to a public relations problem for the police department. In a county where more than one frazzled mom has been known to call out the police because a child refused to do his homework, residents' expectations are probably high that an officer will show up when a real crime is committed.

Taking a report by phone has an air of impersonality that can come back to haunt. Most police forces derive much of their support from the fact that they are visible public servants. Some of that could be lost under this plan.

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