Rural America coming to grips with its soaring crime rate

Rural crime has mushroomed in the last 20 years. And crime-prevention specialists are exploring ways to deal with the problem. Based on Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics, "The big upturn came in the late 1950s and continued until about 1978. During that period, there was a 400 percent increase in rural crimes," says Dr. Howard Phillips, professor of rural sociology at Ohio State University.

Dr. Phillips says the breakdown in crimes committed shows as 154 percent increase in personal, violent crimes. But the largest increase -- 459 percent -- has been in crimes against property.

Researchers point to the shift in population growth as a major factor contributing to the increase. "Rural America is changing rapidly," Dr. Phillip says. "The farm population is down to about 3 percent of the total population. But about 54 million people are classified as rural."

Rex Campbell, professor of rural sociology at the University of Missouri, agrees.

"A lot of the increase in rural crime has to do with population. The essence of a rural community is large personal interaction. Strangers are followed with stares and curiosity," he says. "And with the influx of large numbers of people , you lose the informal social controls that exist."

The rural population, researchers say, is becoming more diverse. There are more families with both spouses working. Many of those moving to rural areas are professional or technical people, who have more material goods to steal.

Farmers are investing in more valuable equipment. And, researchers say, thieves are even absconding with truckloads of grain.

Finally, they add, as city police departments become more efficient, professional criminals may be moving into areas where there are fewer police officers.

"There is a lot of concern now about crime in rural areas," professor Campbell concludes. "Some places have citizen patrols. But most of what's going on is a wringing of hands."

Dr. Phillips also points to the traditional reputation that rural people have for trusting their neighbors -- the "I don't even have to lock my door" attitude.

"People knew of other people's valuables," he says, and "they didn't steal them. Many of these people are not attitudinally equipped for the changes that have taken place."

The rising crime rate has prompted several crime-prevention projects, not the least of which is the establishment last March of the National Rural Crime Prevention Center at Ohio State, under Dr. Phillips's direction.

Many of the recommendations that he and others put forward for crime prevention are similar to those in urban settings, such as engraving possessions with one's social-security number and adding deadbolt locks to doors. Farmers also are being advised to be more judicious in locating their fuel storage facilities. Often these pumps are placed in areas that make stealing fuel easy. And, Dr. Phillips says, farmers are being warned against leaving tractors and other heavy equipment in their field near roads or highways.

Working with the Iowa County Sheriffs Association, the Iowa Farm Bureau has adopted a sophisticated identification system for farmers. Similar in concept to the postal ZIP code, the IFB code identifies the state, county, farm, and farmer with a number that can be applied to everything from plows to the "confetti" that is added to stored grain for identification purposes.

Farm bureau spokesman Harold Anderson says several other states have adopted the method.

The effectiveness of the program depends on the number of people participating. "A continuing problem is to keep people alert to identifying their possession," Mr. Anderson says.

Even so, Iowa State Division of Criminal Investigation officials note that few thefts involving marked equipment are taking place, according to preliminary results from a survey of sheriffs in the state's 99 counties.

Iowa also may be the first state in the Midwest to implement a statewide community crime-prevention program -- much of which will be geared to rural areas.

Rollie Hoffman of the state division of criminal investigation, and an adviser to the nonprofit Iowa Crime Prevention Coalition, says the latter has received a $244,966 grant from the Federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration to get the statewide program moving.

There will be four area coordinators who each will establish 12 community coalitions and provide them with technical assistance to help them set up their crime prevention programs.

Aside from the property identification process, Mr. Hoffman also would like to see citizen-alert programs set up.

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