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The Fight Against Crime: Notes From the Front : Information Age Altering Crime Fighting

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine a police report being delivered to your home computer, with a weekly list of crimes committed in your neighborhood, their locations and illustrated descriptions of the suspects.

Sound too far out? Too far off?

Well, actually it is.

But the Los Angeles Police Department, long detoured from the information superhighway, seems to have finally found the on-ramp and is moving into the computer age. If only in first gear.

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It may not be the fully interactive system that futuristic crime-fighters dream of, but for about the past two months, the West Valley station in Reseda has been using a computerized bulletin board to pass crime-fighting tips and other information to computer users in the area.

And neighborhood groups in Northridge have donated about 60 computers to the Devonshire station--which also has a $3,000 telephone system that automatically dials the victim’s neighbors after a burglary to deliver a recorded warning that a crime has occurred in their area.

Still, the department and City Councilwoman Laura Chick estimated last month that it will take $100 million to get the department fully computerized.

But in a department where investigators still fill out paperwork by hand, and crooks can confuse cops by committing crimes in different LAPD bureaus because they do not have a single computer link, any technological advance is a big deal.

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The West Valley’s Community Policing Bulletin Board Service, for instance, allows residents to electronically tap into a police newsletter and files that contain crime-prevention tips. The system also allows citizens to send messages from their home computers to the police computer used by officers who supervise the Neighborhood Watch program.

That allows the department’s consumers--the citizenry it is paid to protect--to bypass the station’s often busy phone lines or avoid making the drive to the station.

“This gives us instantaneous communication with lots of people . . . without us having to (talk) to them personally,” said West Valley Capt. Val Paniccia. “We can solve a lot of problems in our neighborhoods just by people downloading” the information.

The system can take in information on criminal activities--a corner frequented by dope dealers for example--but should not be used to report emergencies because the network is not constantly monitored, police said.

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The computerized bulletin board, which is being used on a trial basis, is believed to be the first of its kind in the country. If it proves successful, it will be used at other San Fernando Valley police divisions--and eventually, citywide, said Officer Tim Kidd, who runs the program.

West Valley was picked as the test site because of the large number of private computer owners in the area, Kidd said.

“Originally, the idea came up several years ago as a way to communicate with our Neighborhood Watch people,” he said.

Since June, the free service has attracted about 300 users, a number “beyond anyone’s expectations,” Kidd said.

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The system is the gift of computer consultant Dennis Santiago of El Monte, who donated a computer and software to the cash-strapped LAPD.

One of the plans for the near future is to transmit wanted posters electronically, warning potential victims sooner about criminals such as the Valley Molester, a man accused of assaulting or attempting to assault dozens of schoolchildren last year.

Hundreds of civilian volunteers had to go door to door and from school to school, handing out composite drawings of a suspect, when “it would have been much easier had we been able to transmit them by computer,” Paniccia said.

Added Kidd: “And the picture quality is a lot better too, a lot cleaner.”

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Also, police plan to create a file especially for business owners that will contain information about check and credit card fraud suspects, Kidd said.

The service is accessible to anyone with a computer and modem by dialing (818) 756-9057.


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