Baltimore's newest effort in community policing, a Japanese-inspired corner kiosk that opened last week, is being lauded by merchants and shoppers at Lexington Market as a step toward revitalizing the Howard Street corridor.
Known as a "koban," the police substation is an air-conditioned, 8-by-12-foot blue box at the northwest corner of West Lexington and North Howard streets. The shiny new $125,000 steel structure sits among buildings that have been boarded up and scarred by graffiti.
Equipped with a telephone, bullet-proof glass and a small bathroom, the koban opened for business June 1. Officers assigned to the substation are not supposed to leave the kiosk, which is staffed from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Emergency calls must still go through 911. The main purpose of the koban, police officials said, is visibility.
"We're here to be a deterrent, to prevent loitering and shoplifting," said Baltimore police Officer Tony McKoy, who has worked several shifts at the koban. Each shift is staffed by a single officer.
The presence of police such as Officer McKoy is the only deterrent provided by the koban. The substation's technological equipment -- including 16 video cameras that will cover a six-block area, four television monitors and a computer -- has not arrived. Police Department spokesman Sam Ringgold said the computer will be delivered in six weeks and the cameras will be up and running in about three months.
Although the substation is not fully equipped, visitors said the koban has eased some of their fears about crime in the area. Last year, several shootings occurred around Lexington Market, and a homeless man was attacked there in broad daylight by a man brandishing a hatchet.
"Now I feel safe bringing my kids here to shop," said Tanya Moore, 22, of Baltimore. "I used to be afraid to come into this area because my mom had her purse snatched on Lexington Street last summer."
"It makes me feel a little more secure, knowing there are police down here," said Emma Perkins of Baltimore, a nurse's technician at Maryland General Hospital who often visits the shops in Lexington Market on her lunch break. "Maybe they'll be fewer kids hanging out and making noise."
Merchants in the area said they have already noticed some positive changes.
"Store owners are trying to keep the area a little cleaner," said Allen Parker, 55, a sidewalk vendor who sells hair accessories outside the Hair Cuttery on West Lexington Street. "Change is coming slowly. I'm sure it will progress faster once the cameras go up."
Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier learned about kobans last spring during a 10-day visit to Tokyo, where the stations are two stories high and are staffed round-the-clock by officers who sleep inside.
Baltimore's koban, slated to be the first of several, is staffed 12 hours a day by police officers from the Central District's Neighborhood Services Unit.