A crime reporter with taste - and an eye for detail

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

EARLY in her career as a crime reporter for the Miami Herald, Edna Buchanan observed a disturbing pattern in domestic-violence cases. ``There are so many cases where you cover the murder of a woman and find she's been trying to get help,'' Ms. Buchanan says. ``The police may have been called a dozen times, but never did anything. They just patted the guy on the shoulder and said, `Well, be nice now.'''

Now, Buchanan notes, police officers are ``much more sensitive'' to domestic violence. They also have instructions to make an arrest if violence appears imminent.

Yet women themselves sometimes compound the problem, she adds. After an abused woman's husband is arrested, she might bail him out the next day, take him home, and refuse to press charges. Or a wife who has sought refuge in a shelter for battered women might sneak a call to her husband to give him the shelter's unpublished address.

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``Women in love are always so helpful,'' Buchanan says dryly. ``Here they were safe, but they would go back to try to make it work, and end up getting murdered.''

Today she sees signs of progress. Shelters for abused women, treatment programs for abusive men, and greater public awareness of the problem help women realize they have alternatives to feeling economically and physically trapped.

``It's getting a whole lot better,'' Buchanan says. ``But it's still going to take a lot of work on the part of all of us - journalists, police, women's groups.''

Buchanan, a slim, intense woman wearing a rust-colored suit and sporting a gold ring with a diamond ``E,'' is bringing a new level of seriousness and taste to the once-sensationalistic genre of crime reporting - a beat journalists have traditionally regarded as ``something to get off as soon as possible.''

Last year Buchanan's total dedication to this beat won her a Pulitzer Prize. This year she has reviewed her 16 years as a crime reporter in a book, ``The Corpse Had a Familiar Face'' (Random House, New York, $17.95).

What leads to violence? What can be done to prevent it?

These simple and profound questions obviously haunt and puzzle a woman who has reported more than 5,000 violent deaths.

Buchanan attributes much of Miami's ``terrible violence'' to drugs and illegal immigration. But Americans in general have always been ``a sort of violent people,'' she insists, citing the Old West, the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War as partial evidence.

Other evidence shows up on television and in movies, which she blames for helping to ``cheapen life and make violence commonplace.''

Even something as simple as ``Smoky and the Bandit'' movies, she said in an interview, ``give kids the impression that it's fun to outrun the police and speed down the highway. Police cars go off the cliff or into the ditch or the river, and nobody gets hurt. And there are all these multiple-car pileups, but everybody walks away. There's no bloodshed.''

Buchanan also decries the thousands of murders children see on TV. ``In the old days in cartoons, Bugs Bunny was always getting hit over the head or flattened, and then popping back. Everybody said cartoons were always violent. But kids knew they were cartoons.''

While practical solutions - better control of borders and the nation's drug traffic - would certainly help, reducing violence finally calls for ``a basic change in the American psyche,'' Buchanan says.

Despite high crime rates, she emphasizes that the average prudent, law-abiding citizen faces little real danger.

``Most people who get murdered take some part in their own demise,'' she says. ``They're doing something they shouldn't at the time they're killed. If they're not dealing in drugs, they're robbing or stealing or doing some other criminal activity, or beating up their spouse, who eventually retaliates with deadly force. Or they're fighting in traffic with a stranger who has a short temper and a loaded gun in the glove compartment, or fighting over a parking space, or brawling in bars, seeing who's more macho. A lot of them have drugs or alcohol aboard, or both, when it happens.''

In Buchanan's early days on the job, policewomen were assigned to low-risk cases such as shoplifting and juvenile runaways. Now, she says, women work as homicide detectives or patrol the ghetto at midnight in patrol cars - ``and they're doing a terrific job.''

Similarly, although most crime reporters are still men, Buchanan thinks women bring special talents to the field, such as ``a better eye for detail. And maybe we have more curiosity, and better gut feelings on occasion, or intuition. I think women in many ways are stronger than men.''

Even so, she cautions young women that crime reporting is ``kind of tough on your personal life, because major crimes don't usually occur 9-to-5 Monday through Friday.'' Describing her own personal life as ``very simple and quiet,'' Buchanan says she relaxes by listening to music, walking her dog, caring for four cats, and working on a novel.

``I don't really take work home with me,'' she explains. ``I try to give it my best shot and work as hard as I can every day. When I go home, I know I did everything I could, and I try not to think about it anymore until the next day.''

Still, there are fringe benefits. For all her contact with the dark and seamy side of Miami, Buchanan loves the city she and her mother first saw nearly 20 years ago during a two-week vacation from Paterson, N.J., where Buchanan worked in a coat factory.

So great is her affection for her adopted home that she carries tokens of it with her: a custom-made gold necklace that spells I LOVE MIAMI, and a smooth white shell she picked up on her beloved beach. Rubbing her fingers over it, she explains:

``I put this in my pocket and take it with me when I leave town. It's like taking Florida sand in your shoes. If you don't have a cat to stroke, it's the next best thing.''

And then there are the rewards of the job itself.

``It's a joy to write the happy-ending stories, the hero stories,'' she says. Her favorites involve heroes who are ``just average people'' - businessmen, housewives, truck drivers.

``When people do something wonderful, you know it's going to be the best-read story in the paper,'' she says. ``Readers love those kinds of stories. You also give these people recognition for what they've done, which is a very exciting thing to do.

``What drives you is the joy of accomplishment. You can change the law, you can put people in jail, get people out of jail, you can right wrongs. Sometimes you're the only person who can help. Then you feel like Superwoman.''

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