Tony Texas town gets a pocket-size crime fighter

Some worry that introduction of personal 911 devices is a case ofthe rich getting better service

The residents of Highland Park, Texas - people like Ross Perot Jr., Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, and former Gov. Bill Clements - have been used to some of the safest streets in the Dallas metroplex, possibly the safest in Texas. Soon they will have one more high-tech reason to feel secure.

This spring, each citizen will receive a pocket-size 911 device. In case of emergency - be it robbery, fire, or a pet caught in a storm drain - citizens can push a button on the PS-911 to call police. Within seconds, officers will have photo identification of the citizen, and will be able to pinpoint his location within 10 feet.

Police officials say the device is an example of how state-of-the-art electronics can enhance personal security. Others, however, contend that the Highland Park "panic button" is just another sign of the advantages of wealthy communities in getting the best safety money can buy.

But as America enters the early stages of a technological boom in personal security, many experts are saying the entire nation - the have nots as well as the haves -will likely benefit from the growing number of Dick Tracey-like gadgets on the streets.

"The private-security industry is one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy, so we're only at the beginning of this," says James Copple, executive deputy director of the National Crime Prevention Council, a nonprofit group in Washington. Even "when crime statistics are down, various crimes continue to be the No. 1, 2, and 3 concerns of people. And with the media, people are more aware of what can go wrong."

Some towns are chock full of these latest devices, from night-vision goggles to laptop computers to electronic tracking bracelets for ex-cons.

"This is just one more little tool in our arsenal of technology to make citizens less likely of being the victims of crimes or another sad statistic," says Police Chief Darrell Fant. "Let's face it. We're in a technology explosion. It's better to start using it to your benefit rather than let it manipulate you."

Of course, if the truth be told, not much goes wrong in Highland Park anyway.

This leafy suburb of mansions and gated communities has a 60 percent lower crime rate per capita than the city of Dallas, which completely surrounds Highland Park. Even when something goes amiss, Highland Park police respond to emergency calls within two minutes, on average.

The fast response time may be due to the small area of Highland Park itself, which in fact was one reason the city was chosen as a test site for the PS-911 by the developers of the device. It is designed for small communities, colleges, or hospital campuses that are only three to 15 square miles in size.

"We like to call it portable peace of mind," says Mike Markwood, sales director of Personal Security & Safety Systems Inc. Police officers, who are also trained as paramedics and firefighters, will be able to provide whatever assistance is needed, even if they don't know initially if the emergency is a fire, mugging, or a false alarm.

"If you hit it, it means there's an emergency," says Mr. Markwood. "I can confidently state that this time next year, I think we will have provided assistance that saved someone's life."

"Frankly," he continues, "I'd like to have one for my mom and for myself."

While Highland Park may represent a more wealthy example of a tech-savvy city, Alok Baveja is helping to bring some high-tech improvements to the grittier streets of Camden, N.J.

As developer of a computer database for law enforcement, Dr. Baveja is hopeful that the Camden police will be able to respond to trouble areas and prevent crime waves before they happen.

Together with his partner, computer science professor Mike Redmond, Baveja has developed a database of census, FBI, and local law-enforcement data to compare communities with similar populations and problems.

In theory, police can find communities that have a similar environment but a lower crime rate, find out what they are doing right, and use that information to improve their services.

"Most of the technology you see around you is reactive - faster police cars, car alarms," says Baveja. "But to bring crime under control, you have to know the community and its needs, and that means thinking proactively."

FOR his part, Mr. Copple, the crime-prevention advocate, says he supports any device that gives people a greater feeling of security. But he is concerned about a society that clamors after every new high-tech panacea, rather than investing in a few tried-and-true devices like lights, locks, and alarms.

Most of all, he frets about a growing disparity between those who can afford to buy all the latest bells and whistles and other less-prosperous areas that have trouble hiring enough police officers to patrol their streets.

"It's a real issue for people in poorer neighborhoods who are more often the victims of crimes," says Copple.

"If law enforcement is what is left over for those who can't afford their own personal security, society itself will be much the poorer," he adds. "It's going to be important to see how we allocate publicly supported law enforcement."

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