"In Baltimore, a lot of people want an officer; they want that interaction," said Maj. Margaret Barillaro, who oversees information services. "If they say, 'I'd rather see an officer,' we say, 'No problem, Mrs. Smith. We'll send an officer over.'"

Bingel said he ran into problems over the phone when he called the Northeastern District. While the person who rifled through his car didn't take anything, Bingel's home security cameras caught the incident — as well as a crew of would-be thieves testing other car doors on the block.

An officer told him there was no crime because nothing was taken from his car, Bingel said, didn't ask for his video evidence and took an incident report. "I would have wanted to see something more proactive," he said.

After Bingel complained to The Baltimore Sun, a major called him to apologize and review the recordings.

"This was a case of a light duty officer trying to help out with backed up calls and this one slipped through the cracks," Baltimore police spokesman Lt. Eric Kowalczyk said in an email. "They are working to rectify it as we speak."

Effland said that her unit wasn't responsible for that call and that her officers send patrol officers to review any suspected evidence "100 percent of the time."

Police say that Bingel's experience is an anomaly and that they're working to make sure other residents don't have a similar experience. Besides, officials say, most people are getting quicker service; patrol officers can take hours to arrive for a nonemergency call.

Police are still working out other bugs of the new unit. For example, they removed identity theft within the first three weeks from the Telephone Reporting Unit's responsibilities because of the complexity involved in verifying someone's identity and to make sure a criminal wasn't making a false report. The unit also doesn't take reports of stolen or misplaced medication because of the prevalence of prescription fraud.

The origins of the Telephone Reporting Unit trace back to at least the 1990s, when officers were handling similar duties until their responsibilities were taken over by Baltimore's 311 system, which still handles service calls and some property crimes involving damage or losses under $1,000. An online police reporting system, Coplogic, expanded on those services in June.

Police reported last month that 311 operators rarely take reports, but instead dispatch a patrol officer. According to a recent police document, the new Telephone Reporting Unit wrote more reports in a month than 311 operators had written all year.

Batts has told his commanders he'd like to divert as many as 100,000 police calls a year to the Telephone Reporting Unit — about 10 percent of the total calls city police field.

Effland said police are exploring ways to expand the unit, such as staffing it with retirees who have expressed interest in resuming light police duties.

Many other agencies operate telephone reporting units, including police in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. The Baltimore County Police Department's Telephone Reporting Unit and its Online Crime Reporting system handle lower-priority calls "so that they do not need to be processed by patrol officers," agency spokeswoman Elise Armacost said.

"These are lower-priority calls where there is no evidence and no suspects and the goal is to record officially that an offense occurred," said Armacost. The county will always send over a patrol officer if a resident prefers to speak with an officer in person, she added.

The county unit operates 16 hours a day on weekdays and is staffed with officers who are restricted from doing their normal duties, Armacost said.

The Louisville, Ky., police have had a telephone reporting unit since 2005, and merged it with a telephone crime tip unit three years ago.

Susan Bowling, supervisor for the Louisville Metropolitan Police Department Service Center, said 14 people and one supervisor staff the unit around the clock. Civilian employees — not sworn officers — staff the unit because light-duty officers come and go and would need to be trained each time they came onboard.

The Baltimore Police Department's strategic plan calls for the agency to consider staffing an expanded Telephone Reporting Unit, which would also handle noise and traffic complaints, with civilian workers, cadets and light-duty officers who would be assigned for a minimum of six months to keep staffing consistent.

The Louisville unit operates 24 hours a day and took more than 74,000 calls in 2012, writing 11,488 incident reports and 3,500 supplemental reports.

"Our goal is to provide a service to our citizens that is safe and convenient to them," Bowling said. "But we're also providing a service to our officers. We can handle nonviolent reporting of crimes to free them up to handle crimes of higher priority."

Bowling said one way the unit has gained the public's trust is by aggressively marketing the designated phone line for the unit. "All of our community knows it," she said. "It's on the news constantly."

Effland and Barillaro want the same community confidence and hope it is earned over time.

"Some people will say, 'I don't trust the system. I haven't heard of you,'" Effland said. "And a supervisor gets on the phone and says you're getting the same level of service."

Baltimore Sun staff reporters Yvonne Wenger and Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

jgeorge@baltsun.com

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