Crime reporting to star on ABC news shows

Crime in America is getting star treatment on ABC in the next two weeks. According to ABC News president Roone Arledge the reason for the unusual focus is that ''crime is one of the foremost concerns of the American people. . . .''

Of course, networks are in the midst of a February ''sweeps'' period, in which future advertising rates are set, and the recognition that crime coverage usually wins big audiences helps make it easier to decide to dig deep into crime. Too, ABC's ''World News Tonight'' is once again lagging in the ratings and is in need of a boost.

In any event, the ABC coverage genuinely seems to have the public interest in mind as well as ratings motivation.

The massive two-week effort starts on Sunday with a special edition of what is rapidly becoming TV's most solid news program, ''This Week With David Brinkley'' (Sunday, 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.). (One hopes that when the extended, one-hour daily ''MacNeil-Lehrer Report'' makes it to PBS in the spring it will prove to be as solid.)

Interviewed on this Sunday's special will be US Attorney General William French Smith and FBI Director William H. Webster. Other ABC programs that will take part in the attack on crime with expert testimony and allegedly hard-hitting investigations are ''Nightline,'' ''The Last Word,'' ''20/20,'' ''Viewpoint,'' ''Good Morning, America,'' and, of course, ''World News Tonight.''

ABC has indicated its seriousness about the series of reports by hiring as consultants Harold Edgar, a Columbia law professor, and Gary P. Hayes, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. A special national poll to gauge public opinion about crime has been commissioned. A correspondent's view on crime

I previewed a few of the ''World News Tonight'' segments and then chatted with ABC news correspondent Richard Threlkeld, who is anchoring those reports. ''What the series does mainly is point out the enormous gap between myth and reality in the crime problem,'' he explains.

''For instance, although our poll revealed that around 70 percent of the people believe that police are handcuffed by the courts, criminologists agree that search-and-seizure rules of evidence interfere with arrests in only about 1 percent of all cases . . . and usually, that is in drug cases. Despite all the screaming about court decisions holding back police action, the courts really don't affect law enforcement that much.''

Mr. Threlkeld says that one of the nation's top criminologists feels the police have created this grave situation themselves by concentrating so much on technology - radio cars, helicopters, SWAT groups, etc. Citizens have the impression that law enforcement is not their problem. Threlkeld maintains: ''The police have got to get out of their cars and back on the beat so that they know the neighborhood, the shopkeepers. It's terribly old fashioned, but it used to work pretty well.''

As a result of his research, Threlkeld also believes that the average citizen must once again get a sense of order and participation in society. The policeman on the beat must stop the small illegalities and aberrations which Threlkeld feels Americans fear most.

But things are not nearly as bad as most people perceive them to be, according to the ABC poll. ''Around 85 percent of the people polled think crime is getting worse,'' Threlkeld says. ''Well, it is not getting worse. In fact it is leveling off and dipping a bit. Judges are not soft on crime, as widely believed - they are much tougher, on the whole, than they used to be. But mandatory sentencing doesn't work - we now have more people in jail per capita than any other Western nation except South Africa . . . and we need more jails. The death penalty doesn't seem to work, either. And just increasing the police force is not the easy answer.''

Isn't TV in part to blame for showing so much crime and indicating so much super police action? The policeman on the beat doesn't really make exciting action-TV, does he?

''Right!'' crime correspondent Richard Threlkeld agrees. Words on America

Is the great American dream actually a nightmare?

The question is still moot, judging by the oratory of famous Americans throughout history to the present, dramatized in an ingenious new television series, Freedom to Speak (PBS, Sunday and for five succeeding Sundays, 10-10:30 p.m., check local listings).

The host for this stimulating symphony of rhetorical eloquence is Mr. Eloquence himself, William F. Buckley, a man who packs a mean polysyllable and who manages unobtrusively to put the speeches into historical perspective. The series is based on a book by the late Yale professor, Rollin G. Osterweis.

The premiere program focuses on ''The American Dream,'' and the orators range from Daniel Webster to Adlai Stevenson, from Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King. A troupe of fine actors brings the words to life. Most outstanding in the initial segment are Edward Herrmann (who essays the role of Abraham Lincoln with as much style as in his now-familiar FDR portrayals), Nancy Marchand (as Dorothy Thompson), and James Earl Jones (as Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King). Mr. Jones will bring tears to the eyes of many viewers as he holds back his own tears reciting the famous ''I have a dream . . .'' speech of the Rev. Dr. King.

Although this type of anthology format can lead to utter boredom if not handled expertly, ''Freedom to Speak'' manages to toe the delicate line between entertainment and enlightenment . . . and somehow satisfy the requirements for both. The fact that only one speech - that of Martin Luther King - is more than 30 seconds long is a great help in this age of short attention spans.

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