Police issuing crime alerts by phone Recorded messages in Baltimore County warn of outbreaks

February 02, 1996|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Tired of those automated telephone calls and recorded voices pitching subscription sales or call-for-prizes schemes?

You might want to listen when the recorded calls come from the Baltimore County Police Department, which has begun using automated dialing to alert communities about local crime waves.

"It certainly caught my attention," said Gemmelle Redfearn, 26, a Town & Country Apartments tenant in Randallstown who was alerted Wednesday received a recorded-message alert on burglaries Wednesday.

"I didn't even know about the break-ins," she said, "so I'm glad they told me."

The county Police Department is one of a handful nationwide using automatic telephone dialer systems and the only one in Maryland, officials said.

The system is mostly used between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., when someone is usually home to answer a telephone, police said. It makes 25 to 30 calls an hour to numbers culled by neighborhood from a computerized telephone directory.

Police departments in Casper, Wyo., and Reading, Pa., also use automated dialing to spread the word on crime problems, county police statistician Philip R. Canter said. Other departments have used it to notify people of community meetings, he said.

Baltimore County police also have instituted a system that lets the public call for information on community crime statistics -- if the callers can get through the department's voice mail.

"For selected crimes by community, press 1," a female voice instructs. "For auto thefts by community, press 2. For crime prevention information, press 3. For special alerts and bulletins, press 4. For additional information, press 5. To repeat this menu, press 6."

Ms. Redfearn was impressed by her crime-alert call, but neighbor Jim Denny wasn't .

"I thought it was just great because it makes you feel better and lets you know what's going on and what to look for," Ms. Redfearn said. "It really caught my attention, too. You hear 'Baltimore County police' and it just makes you listen because the police don't just call you every day.

"I didn't like it at all," said Mr. Denny, 44, who added that he listened to the entire recording and found it "way too long."

"It's nice that they give you tips and information on common sense procedures to avoid crime, but I think it gets people kind of fearful. It unnerves you," he said. "What about a little old lady who lives by herself and doesn't get out at all? That might really scare her."

An early evaluation found that at least 90 percent of those called listened to the entire message and that many were glad to hear it, said Capt. Roger L. Sheets, supervisor of the department's Office of Planning and Analysis, which set up the system.

"We were really worried that people would hear it and just hang up in the beginning, or it would cause fear in some neighbors," Captain Sheets said. "But so far, I think, people are very happy, even elated, that the police would call them with the message. They're just happy to know we're informing them before the same crime happens to them."

Those who object to the recorded messages can call the police and ask that their telephone numbers be stricken from the computer directory, Mr. Canter said.

Crime analysts began test runs of the automatic-dialer system in

early November, when a rash of burglaries hit the Stevenson area. Since then, neighborhoods in Randallstown, Catonsville and Greenspring have received calls warning of residential break-ins.

This weekend, residents of the Imperial Gardens community in Randallstown will receive calls warning about break-ins, the police said.

The program, which is funded by a grant from the Maryland Vehicle Theft Prevention Council, has cost $3,700, Mr. Canter said.

"From a cost-benefit outlook, this is a very effective and highly efficient program," Mr. Canter said, noting that it would cost more to have an employee making the calls to warn of crimes and provide tips on prevention.

The recorded message encourages people to look out for their neighbors and report any suspicious person or activity to the police by calling 911 immediately.

The department's Crime Statistics Hotline, featuring information about crime in 31 communities, can be reached by calling 583-2309. It also offers tips from Captain Sheets on protecting vehicles against theft and homes against burglary.

Towson residents who call are told that the number of auto thefts in their area for the first nine months of 1995 decreased by 303, while homicides increased by two. Arbutus residents learn that the number of aggravated assaults in their area increased by seven and that breaking and entering incidents decreased by 19. Chestnut Ridge callers find that the number of robberies in their neighborhood was down by one but that the number of thefts increased by 70.

Captain Sheets also includes in the recorded message such tidbits as these: "95 percent of recovered cars stolen in the county did not have an anti-theft device or did not use it"; and "Robberies tend to increase during the cool-weather months."

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