Dial 'M' to Stop Murders: Phone-Alert System Grows

New tools boost safety from crime

A telephone call might have saved Mary Byron's life.

Ms. Byron's boyfriend turned violent after she broke up with him. Police arrested the man, and he posted bail. But no one alerted Byron that he was out of jail. He ended up killing the Kentucky woman.

Today, four years later, outrage over Byron's death as well as advances in telephone technology are leading to new ways to notify victims when their assailants are released from jail.

And two decades after the 911 telephone system helped redefine policing, these emerging technologies are enhancing crime fighting and may help victims to protect themselves from further attacks. For example:

* The VINE system that was sparked by Byron's death uses a bank of computers to automatically dial all jails and prisons on its list every 10 minutes. When a suspect or criminal is released, VINE (for Victims Information Notification Everyday) calls any victim who has registered with it. VINE systems are now used in at least 26 states.

"For the last 15 years, we've been reading stories about people getting out on bond and murdering victims," says Mitch Lucas of the Charleston County Sheriff's Office, which recently became the first South Carolina county to put VINE in place.

"Now we don't have to rely on some already overworked public service employee to remember to alert the victim," Mr. Lucas says. "The victim can take some control."

* A program called Reverse 911 allows law-enforcement agencies to send telephone bulletins to everyone in a geographic area. If a police department wanted to let a neighborhood know of a rash of garage break-ins or a child missing in the area, for instance, it could program the system to call each home and even leave messages on answering machines.

Reverse 911 also includes a number citizens can call to hear information - everything from police-sponsored Halloween activities to emergency evacuation procedures.

"It puts us in better touch with the community," says Pat Jackson, with the Dekalb County, Ga., police. "We're always looking for ways of improving relations, and this is just one more way."

* 311 is an alternative to the 911 system. People who need non-emergency help, such as those who've lost their heat during a storm or need food, can call and be connected to the appropriate government agency. It is being piloted in Baltimore.

* Even cellular phones have become crime-fighting devices.

The Community Policing Consortium in Washington, D.C., hands out free cellular phones to police departments around the country.

They give them to neighborhood-watch groups, who carry them as they patrol their neighborhoods.

It allows watchful citizens to be in quick contact with police if they come upon a crime.

The emergence of the phone as a preemptive weapon has been fueled by a variety of factors. First, the 911 system has been overwhelmed. Also, the computer technology exists today to create these programs. Their first uses were for such things as computerized telemarketing and automated hotel wake-up calls.

Finally, the victims' rights movement has grown, pushing law-enforcement agencies to provide services such as VINE and sex-offender registries.

Legislation to better protect victims is creating funds for these services, as well. In South Carolina, for example, the state now pays for victim services with fines levied in the criminal courts.

There has been little controversy around the use of the new technologies. Information lines do not give addresses of released suspects or criminals - a charge that has troubled sex-offender registries.

Even the typically skeptical American Civil Liberties Union has no qualms about VINE. "This is simply telling the individual that the person who attacked them is out of prison," says Teresa Nelson, executive director of the ACLU's Georgia office.

Unlike so-called Megan's laws, which notify a community if a sex offender moves in, VINE "isn't notifying all of society," Ms. Nelson says.

"The phone systems have really become an accepted way of communication over the last two years," says Jackie Bianchi, of the Sigma Micro Corp., which provides Reverse 911 for some 40 law-enforcement agencies.

"There's no way departments could provide the same services without the technology," she says.

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