In Answer to Crime, Cities Make Their Fixes Innovative and Cheap

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

IN Jackson, Miss., social workers go into homes with police to help combat domestic violence. In Manchester, Conn., city council meetings on community safety issues are televised. In Houston, police have worked with local kids to produce a video on the dangers of using crack cocaine.

Across the country, cities are searching for innovative ways to combat crime in an era of growing concern about public safety -- without busting local budgets.

The emphasis is understandable. Besides remaining a top concern of most Americans, crime is a costly problem for communities. The National League of Cities released a report last week showing that violence cost the United States $13.5 billion in 1992.

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That represents everything from hospital costs to coroner fees to victims' losses. The price tag related to murder, rape, assault, robbery, drunk driving, and arson was estimated at $10.5 billion.

To curb crime, mayors are trying a variety of approaches, as a recent briefing at a National League of Cities meeting here showed.

Jackson, Miss., for instance, likes to tout its domestic violence program. Under the initiative, police can summon one of five on-call social workers to a scene of domestic violence, where the workers can help provide emergency shelter for the victim and any children. In the past, police have had to wait for often-intimidated victims to press charges. Now individual officers can do so based on probable cause.

The program costs little to run and is providing needed relief to abuse victims, city officials say.

TV Cops

The media, too, are increasingly becoming involved in ways to stem violence. Many television, radio, and print media outlets are running ''infomercials'' that carry crime-prevention messages. For instance, one station in Albuquerque, N.M., KOAT-TV, has provided thousands of dollars in air time and production services for the spots.

Some cities are producing their own messages. Houston police helped youth at the SHAPE Center (Self Help for African People Through Education) produce a video on the dangers of using crack cocaine. It is shown in schools and other public events, says Earl Fisher, a city official.

In Sierra Vista, Ariz., the emphasis is on radio. When teenagers and younger school children there race to phones to enter a local radio T-shirt contest, they aren't asked to name a favorite rock star or sci-fi hero. Instead, they vie with each other for the best answers to questions about drug awareness and resistance strategies.

''DARE on the Air,'' as the program is called, is a new twist on a successful nationwide drug prevention program. The popular radio show on local station KWCD-FM stars two unlikely pop culture icons: local police officers Randy Kirkman and Al Tomlinson.

Gifts to callers

The two officers rap on-air about youth interests, play pop music, and cap each show with free gifts to the young caller who is the fastest to phone in.

Meantime, fifth-graders in each of the seven Sierra Vista elementary schools are taught DARE (Drug Awareness and Resistance Education) in preparation for their entrance into junior high school, Mayor Richard Archer says. ''We started DARE in 1988, so by now, all our youth up to high school have gone through this program,'' he says. ''DARE has also made children aware of the stress of alcohol use as well as cigarettes, and this goes home with them. They'll ask their parents why they drink or smoke.''

In Mesa, Ariz., courts use a video phone for a defendant's first court appearance when the suspect is in one jurisdiction and another jurisdiction has an outstanding warrant. The result is savings on transportation and security costs.

Some solutions cost little. Denton, Texas, helped public housing residents oust drug dealers who had co-opted neighborhood pay phones for selling drugs. The city and local residents got the telephone company to program the phones to allow outgoing calls only. The drug dealers left.

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