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SOUTH-CENTRAL : Videos Put Focus on Area Crime Spots


Keith Thomas started taking photographs when he was a teen-ager, but nearly 20 years after shooting a friend's wedding, Thomas is using the latest in home video equipment to capture crime.

Thomas, a police officer at the 77th Street Division station, is part of a pilot program that relies on residents to identify crime problems and then decide which ones police should tackle first.

"It is a very powerful tool and we've seen remarkable success (with it)," said Gloria Howland, president of a local police advisory committee. She pointed to an increased sense of community, cleaning up of alleys where drug sales were once prominent, and merchants increasing lighting around their stores.

"With Keith's videotapes we can look at (the problems), and then we can prioritize. You stop looking at things individually, and begin looking at things as a group. You stop looking at things as a block but instead as a community."

The program, the only one of its kind in the South Bureau, began in November when Thomas was transferred from the vice squad to the community relations department. Thomas, a part-time photographer, said he came up with the idea of videotaping hot spots while trying to decide how to show residents what was going on in their neighborhoods and other neighborhoods near them.

"Everyone is now going into high-tech," said Thomas. "You see it with officers putting video cameras in their cars, so I thought: 'Why not use my little camcorder from home and I'll just buy the videotapes?' "

After meeting with about a dozen residents in the area bounded by 79th Street on the north, Vermont Avenue on the east, 108th Street on the south and Van Ness on the west, Thomas began compiling a list of problem areas.

So far, the program's successes have come from the cooperation of residents who contact Thomas with neighborhood complaints. He then videotapes problem areas and shows the tapes during the advisory board's weekly meetings. Residents then decide which problem should be addressed first.

One day last week, Thomas drove by some of the neighborhoods he has worked with, including a row of one-story homes along 92nd Street. Steering the patrol car down a two-block stretch of clean alleys that he described as once filled with transients, drug dealers and trash, he looked for signs of drug sales. "There used to be constant foot traffic," he said. "You could drive through here 24 hours a day and buy dope."

Just blocks away at 84th Street, Thomas slowed down as he passed a suspected rock house. Calling it the current priority, Thomas has already compiled several minutes of footage there and contacted the FALCON unit, a multi-agency task force that works with landlords to evict drug dealers.

Although Howard and other residents embrace the program as a success, police remain cautiously optimistic.

"It's a new program, so the long-term affects are yet to be determined," said Capt. Larry Goebel, area commanding officer of the 77th Street Division station. "But it's successful in that we've gotten people to be responsible to specific concerns."

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