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Japanese-Style Police Booth Installed in Baltimore

September 27, 1995

BALTIMORE (AP) _ When a woman’s purse was snatched or a store owner was the victim of a shoplifter in Baltimore’s Lexington Market area, they usually called 911 to report the crime _ if they even bothered.

Now they can go to a blue 8-by-8-foot booth and speak to an officer in person.

The koban, a Japanese-style substation that looks like an oversized phone booth, opened in May in the center of a pedestrian shopping district lined with discount clothing and electronics stores.

The $150,000 koban is equipped with bulletproof glass, radio, microphone, telephone and a toilet hidden behind a partition. The booth is staffed with one or two officers during the day. It’s too tight for any more.

``Obviously it’s an asset to the neighborhood,″ said Larry Levin, owner of Morton’s department store, next to the koban. ``People feel more secure about walking down Lexington Street.″

Kobans, which also have been used in Philadelphia and San Juan, Puerto Rico, were introduced to North America after a group of police chiefs visited Japan in 1988.

Japanese officers who work in kobans visit each home in the neighborhood at least once a year. Some officers even live with their families in some of the larger kobans.

In Baltimore, many people mistake the koban, perched just above the commuter rail tracks, for an information booth, so the officers good-naturedly keep a stack of rail and bus schedules and spend a lot of time giving people directions.

The tinted-blue glass, which absorbs heat, can turn the booth into a sauna on a sweltering day, despite air conditioning and a fan. Passers-by often stare if it were the display window of a department store.

``We’ve called it the fishbowl,″ said Officer Peter Haduch, who works at the koban several days a week.

The police department doesn’t yet have statistics on crime in the area since the koban made its debut. But Haduch said there has been a small increase in the number of petty crimes reported, mainly because the koban makes it easier for people to report them.

``It does make me feel safer,″ said Mary Coleman, who lives in a high-rise apartment at the end of the pedestrian mall. ``I like the idea of the accessibility of the police being located right there.″

So far, it is Baltimore’s only koban. Police are considering installing more.

Not everybody sees the technique as an asset.

Police still patrol the area on foot, but some officers say the koban is a publicity stunt that pulls officers off foot patrols that do more to stop crime.

``They’re great p.r., but as far as deterring crime, I don’t think they’re worth the money,″ said Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police.

``The same thing can be accomplished with a police officer than with the koban. The cost is tremendous and the money could be used for improving equipment.″

The koban is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Police hope to have it staffed around the clock by next year. Cameras will be installed around the neighborhood with monitors in the koban.