Police try idea from Japan

September 20, 1994|By Michael James and Peter Hermann | Michael James and Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writers

The corner kiosk you see outside Lexington Market this Christmas may look like a Fotomat, but it's actually Baltimore's newest police station.

Called a "koban," the 8-by-12-foot station -- the first of a half-dozen that could be built in the city's busiest commercial districts -- is named after Japan's highly successful community policing centers.

"It's a place for people to come and do everything from ask directions to report a crime," said Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, who learned about kobans this spring during a 10-day trip to Tokyo.

The prototype near Lexington Market, where several shootings alarmed merchants earlier this year, would have modest furnishings including a desk with a computer, phone and fax machine. Located on the northwest corner of Howard and Eutaw streets, it also would have a small bathroom and a bicycle rack for bike patrol officers.

"I think it's going to help, or I wouldn't have pushed for it," said Lou Boulmetis, owner of Hippodrome Hatters and a member of the Market Center Association. The group, which worked with Mr. Frazier on the proposal, represents 400 businesses in the Lexington Market area.

"We need to be able to find an officer during business hours," added Mr. Boulmetis, whose store is in the first block of Eutaw St. "We have a need for visible police presence in that area."

The Lexington Market koban, which will cost about $75,000, should be in place around Christmas, Mr. Frazier said.

Prefabricated units, less expensive than the prototype, are tentatively planned for the Inner Harbor and Fells Point early next year. Southland Corp., which oversees 7-Eleven stores, has expressed an interest in building a koban at one of its Baltimore stores, and other locations will be considered based on public interest, Mr. Frazier said.

"If it goes well, we'll get more of them," Mr. Frazier said. "In Japan, the koban is their basic method of police-service delivery. They're used very effectively there."

Tokyo has more than 10 times the population of Baltimore and less than one-tenth the violent crime. Police officials there have credited community-policing concepts, such as the kobans, with helping to keep the crime rate low.

In Japan, a typical koban is staffed with a dozen officers, but only two or three typically are inside at any time.

Japanese officers are required to study their neighborhoods in depth, learning the names of all families in their patrol area, and to visit each home twice a year to talk with residents about community problems. They are also trained in martial arts, flower arranging and tea ceremony.

Those Japanese concepts won't be carried over. Others have been Americanized, too.

Baltimore police officers won't be required to live in the kobans. And typically, two officers will split an eight-hour shift in the koban, which will be open 16 hours a day.

"The kobans serve a bit of a different purpose in Japan, but they can be useful here, too," Mr. Frazier said. "In a highly trafficked urban setting, they can provide a lot more police presence than a storefront building."

The main purpose of the koban in Baltimore, where the smallest precinct houses almost 200 officers, is visibility -- allowing residents to see the station and officers to watch the community on television monitors inside, he said.

Using a $100,000 state grant, the Police Department has purchased about five video cameras that will be mounted on buildings a block from the koban. Pointed down Howard Street and other nearby thorough fares, the cameras will provide the officer in the koban with a view of the surrounding neighborhood.

Mr. Frazier was one of four U.S. police chiefs who went to Tokyo in April on a trip sponsored by the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation in Washington. The purpose of the trip was to allow U.S. police officials to study Japanese community policing methods.

The area around Lexington Market, the nation's oldest pTC continuously operated public market, was a target of criminals over the summer.

On June 27, one man was killed and another injured when a gunman opened fire on the occupants of a parked car.

A week later, more than a dozen men sprayed gunfire into a crowd of about 200 people a block from the market, wounding at least five people. On July 6, just outside a market entrance, a homeless man whacked an acquaintance with a hatchet, sending his victim to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center with a deep gash in his neck.

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