Frazier may tailor Japanese 'kobans' to city

May 02, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- Tokyo has more than 10 times the population of Baltimore and less than one-tenth the violent crime. What's the secret?

For the past week, Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier has been in Tokyo with police chiefs from Newark, N.J.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Little Rock, Ark., in the latest group of law enforcement officers to come to Japan in pursuit of some magic that can be transferred back home. The sponsor, the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation, has organized two similar trips, and it is only one of many international organizations studying Japanese policing methods.

Mr. Frazier's conclusion? Perhaps a new way of deploying police -- in a small police box smack in the middle of the Inner Harbor's tourist area, in storefronts in busy commercial neighborhoods and even in an apartment in a major complex.

The focus of the weeklong trip were the Japanese kobans, the numerous tiny police boxes that are spread throughout Japan. The smallest Baltimore precinct houses almost 200 officers. A typical koban is staffed with a dozen, but only two or three typically inside at any time.

Rather than merely responding to crime, the police in the kobans provide a visible presence and even a friendly face to the public. For anyone frightened, befuddled or even temporarily broke, the police are around to help.

Kobans operate round the clock, and when the officers are not helping visitors in their neighborhoods or chasing down the rare crime, they go door-to-door establishing personal relationships with people living in the surrounding neighborhood.

Inside every koban is a file of green sheets of paper, a result of a survey sent to each area home, asking name, sex, job, nationality, relationships and important phone numbers. The sheets allow police to guide visitors to an address, to help out quickly in a disaster or to solve a crime. Often, much about residents is known even before the sheets are distributed.

This is evident when the sheets arrive at a residence with the questions written in the language of the occupants.

The wide use of kobans and the resulting familiarity the police have with an area and its residents is considered a critical element in Japan's extraordinary success in not only controlling serious crime but reducing it. Japan is proud of its kobans, and eagerly shows them off.

A second aspect of Japanese law enforcement is how harsh it can be on those suspected of breaking the law. This facet was not on Mr. Frazier's tour, but it is an integral part of the system.

Interrogations can continue for more than three weeks; rights to an attorney or privacy, though constitutionally guaranteed, are often ignored. Suspects have been beaten, and confessions coerced through brutal methods. A consequence of Japanese policing is collective safety, but there are individual costs that few U.S. courts could sanctify under existing laws.

Mr. Frazier said even some of the milder aspects would be hard to institute in the United States. For instance, it is likely that many U.S. residents would object to providing personal information to police. Even if they did, Mr. Frazier asks, what if it fell into the wrong hands? Or was somehow misused?

"The Japanese have questions about whether kobans would work [in the United States]," Mr. Frazier said. "They are aware of the privacy issue. Only 10 percent of the people resist regular police visits to their home. They think far more would in America; I think so, too."

Another problem is manpower. Japan's low crime rate means there is time for prevention. In one of the scruffier Tokyo districts where Mr. Frazier spent a day, 10 detectives handle each arrest. "We're lucky to have an investigator to investigate each one," Mr. Frazier said.

It would take a police force more than twice the size of Baltimore's merely to staff proportionally the same number of kobans as is common throughout Japan -- an impossibility.

"But can you take some of the concepts? Yes," Mr. Frazier said.

But Mr. Frazier said there is a possibility that perhaps three kobans could be established in each of Baltimore's nine districts, with the initial emphasis on the tougher neighborhoods.

They may not operate round-the-clock, as in Japan, but from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

A consistent Japanese strategy is to have the kobans in highly visible spots. A box right in the middle of the Inner Harbor area, Mr. Frazier said, would make sense. In other commercial areas, a storefront might serve the same purpose, and in residential areas, a prominent apartment in a major complex could work.

Architecturally, kobans aren't built to blend in. They stand out. Mr. Frazier said he could envision a six-sided glassed-in koban in the middle of a Baltimore park. And if neighborhoods are redeveloped, a small, prominent spot in the landscape could be left for police.

"You have to be visible and you have to have maximum exposure," he said. "You're dealing with safety and perceptions of safety. Being here gives you a lot of things to compute."

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