US task force leans toward easing curbs on crime-fighting agencies

A bipartisan task force on violent crime, appointed by US Attorney General William French Smith, appears ready to recommend to Mr. Smith that some post-Watergate restrictions on federal law-enforcement agencies by lifted.

The panel, established late in March, is scheduled to present an initial report to the attorney general early in June.

There is considerable dispute as to whether violent crime is actually rising as much as Mr. Smith says it is. One federal survey shows little change in violent crime between 1973 and 1979.

Justice Department analyses of US Census Bureau household surveys, which can note unreported crimes, showed the amount of violent crimes between 1973 and 1979 as essentially unchanged. But, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Report, based on crimes reported by local police, violent crime rose 60 percent during the 1970s. And in 1980 violent crime increased 13 percent, the FBI says.

And there is skepticism on the part of some crime experts as to just how much more the federal government can do to reduce the level of violent crimes.

But the Reagan administration seems determined to try to make its mark on violent crime -- a problem that ranks high among the concerns of many Americans.

The cochairman of the task force, Griffin B. Bell, attorney general under President Carter, says he thinks the problem may have become of great enough concern to overcome past congressional opposition to certain expansions of the federal role in law enforcement. (The other cochairman is Gov. James Thompson of Illinois.)

"The Watergate reaction . . . atmosphere is dying away," Mr. Bell says.

In a public hearing here, task force members called for renewing efforts to lower two law enforcement restrictions backed in the immediate post-Watergate period: a ban against the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) sharing criminal information with other federal agencies; and congressional resistance to an FBI data center that would supply state and local police with records on criminals.

Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia has introduced a number of bills to strengthen federal law enforcement efforts, including IRS information-sharing. Criticism of the IRS sharing data during the Nixon administration led to passage of a law against that. The idea of a national criminal records center that local police could use is not new. But so far, Congress has not been willing to go along with it.

The task force proposals, if sought in legislation by the Reagan administration, will run into some opposition.

The IRS information sharing is "inconsistent with the principle against self-incrimination," says Norman Dorsen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union. And the idea of a national criminal data bank raises such "risks to privacy" that it must be studied very carefully before being attempted , he adds.

Meanwhile, the FBI, beginning in June, will operate a computerized Interstate Identification Index, to tell state and local police which states have criminal information on individuals. Then the states are free to swap information among themselves.

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