Liberia Giving Away Cell Phones So Citizens Can Call Police

Liberia's government is giving away specially programmed cell phones so citizens in the country impoverished by civil wars can report rapes and other violence as crime soars amid a shortage of police officers.

The 1989-2003 civil wars killed some 250,000 Liberians and ravaged institutions including the police force, which is now being revived with U.N. help.

Crime is such that the 3,500 Liberian police in this country of 3 million only venture into dangerous areas with the backing of armed U.N. police.

In the capital Monrovia, there are still too few officers to patrol the city's sprawling slums.

The government is giving up to 10 cell phones to each of 400 neighborhoods in and around Monrovia so people can summon police to crimes in progress.

In each case, the phones will be given to people the government has identified as neighborhood leaders. These leaders will then identify people within their communities who are most likely to have jobs that keep them up at night or who live in strategic spots within the neighborhood, making them more likely to see and report crimes.

Authorities are even offering prizes for the communities reporting the most crimes.

The cell phones are programmed to allow free calls to a police hot line. Although mobile phone usage is widespread in Liberia, people had not been alerting police because of the call's cost.

By nightfall in Monrovia, a city with a population of up to 1.5 million, shopkeepers close their shutters and commuters hasten to get off the streets. Roaming thieves snatch purses and run off into unlit alleys.

"Every nook and corner of the country is not covered as yet. So criminals are using this as an avenue to get into communities in which we are not present," Monrovia's police spokesman Alvin Jask said.

But not everyone is sure the plan makes sense.

"When armed robbers break into your home, the first thing they ask for is your cell phone," said Martin Lombeh, who lives in a densely populated neighborhood that has seen a spike in armed robberies.

Now, he says, robbers will be looking for even more cell phone booty.