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Police force tests online chat system
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REDWOOD CITY  (AP) — In one San Francisco Bay area city, a police officer is now just a click of a button away.

The Redwood City Police Department is trying out a new program — possibly the first of its kind in the nation — that allows people to chat online with a police officer.

During business hours Monday through Thursday, residents can hit an online chat button on the police website to launch the software Live Guide. They can ask questions face-to-face over a video link with a head-set wearing officer, or via voice or text.

The program is not a 911 replacement but instead meant to provide quick answers or deal with small disputes, removing the need for officers to respond in person, Police Chief JR Gamez said. It was launched on June 26.

"It frees our officers up to do more police work in areas that need it," Gamez said.

For example, officers can help residents fill out police reports online. They can take information about a fence location dispute rather than going to the house in person.

The program is staffed by officers who are not in the field, usually because of injuries, Gamez said.

One of the officers who takes calls is Steve Barker, a 13-year-veteran with a background in Internet technology. Barker injured his hand while making an arrest. He said he answers many of the same questions — as many as 20 in a day — that he got on the street, but in less time and with more privacy for residents.

"They don't always want a police car showing up at their front door," Barker said.

Bernard Melekian, director of Community Oriented Policing Services at the U.S. Department of Justice, said this kind of technology can boost the public's confidence in police by ending long waiting times for officers to respond in person to a non-emergency call.

"You can impact a lot more people in a lot shorter period of time," Melekian said.

The Police Department plans to expand the online chat hours to include evenings and weekends. If the program is well used, Gamez said, it will be continued after the 3-month-trial period ends.