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Cellular Phones: Latest Law-Enforcement Tool For Citizen Groups

On Halloween night, the citizen's watch group in Elizabethtown, Pa., conducted a foot patrol through the neighborhood. There were no incidents. In fact, the whole event would have been unremarkable except for one change: It was the first time the watch group had walked the beat with cellular telephones.

Cell phones are popping up in unexpected places from driver's education classes to pizza-delivery vans. Now, a gadget most people consider a convenience is becoming a crime-stopper.

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Already, many police departments have adopted the technology. Patrolmen not only talk over cellular phones, they send and receive data too. The technology has gotten so cheap and pervasive that the cellular telephone industry is helping neighborhood-watch groups do the same thing - for free.

The industry is encouraging its members to give away 50,000 cellular phones and air time to 10,000 neighborhood-watch groups around the country. Any watch group can apply with the approval of its local police department. The program, Communities on Phone Patrol, even has its own mascot, COPP, which was introduced last week in Harrisburg, Pa. (You know a technology has established itself when it gets a mascot devoted not to itself but to what it can do.)

The idea seems sound. Where it has been tried, cell-phone-equipped watch groups have begun turning the tide in the battle against thieves and beeper-toting drug lords.

In 11 Miami-area communities, for example, thefts went down 9 percent and burglaries fell by one-third after citizen-watch groups got cellular phones, according to a study by Florida International University. In Salt Lake City, break-ins decreased 27 percent. Nationwide, some 50,000 times a day, cellular-phone users make calls to emergency 911 centers.

Mobile communications offers several advantages as a crime-stopping technology. When members of a watch group spot suspicious activity, they can contact police immediately instead of having to find a payphone or knock on a neighbor's door. They also act as a deterrent. Criminals are less likely to act if they see a citizen ready to dial the police.

This will enable block captains to be mobile, says Jill Troutman, coordinator of the Elizabethtown watch group, which used phones donated by Vanguard Cellular in Harrisburg, Pa.

But perhaps the most important thing the phones do is bring people together. Mrs. Troutman is encouraging watch members to call their neighbors while on patrol and invite them to come out. "It's a magnet," adds Bill Matthews, director of operations for the Community Policing Consortium, which administers the COPP program along with the charitable arm of the Cellular Telephone Industry Association.

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Community policing is a hot topic in law-enforcement circles. Police departments across the country are eager to get citizens more involved in the reporting and preventing of crime, Mr. Matthews adds. The Clinton administration is pushing the idea. It was after a meeting with Vice President Gore in May that the cellular industry came up with the COPP program.

But communities are often reluctant to work with police forces, Matthews says. If the arrival of a cellular phone can lure police and community to work together, then the COPP program will have succeeded, he says.

Do you want to become a phone-toting crime-stopper? Contact your local police department. Or get an application by sending electronic mail to the Community Policing Consortium in Washington, D.C.:

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