Crime fears: what you can do

Amidst all the reports about fear of crime in the United States and ever-rising crime statistics, it is helpful to be reminded that much is being done -- and can and mustm yet be done -- to reduce the terrible toll of criminality on society.

At a forum on violence held at the Kennedy Library in Boston recently several speakers reminded their listeners that citizen efforts against criminals can make a difference. The example of a neighborhood that stuck to its principles despite threats and intimidation until a street gang was broken in Chicago and its leaders jailed was just one example. Or take the public pressure that helped spur enactment of the Bartley-Fox gun law by the Massachusetts legislature several years ago that mandates a tough one-year sentence for carrying an illegal firearm.

Also, the very fact that so much is not known about the degree of crime in the US, including inner cities where relations between police and citizens are still often tenuous at best, suggests public caution in evaluating crime statistics such as the FBI Uniform Crime Report for 1980 released last week. The report concluded that the US crime rate increased 7 percent in 1980 over 1979, and 42 percent over 1971. During that same period the population increased only 9 percent. However, at almost the same time that the FBI figures were being released a respected national anticrime organization, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, issued a report of its own on another topic that in part questioned the assumption that there has been a sharp increase in crime in the past several years. The NCCD report calls crime figures "notriously subject to manipulation" and argues that alleged increases in numbers of crimes may in fact merely reflect better reporting of crimes than in past years.

Many criminal justice experts have come to the same conclusion. This is not to ignore that the US does face a serious crime problem and that more and more lawbreakers are being arrested. Jails are bulging. It is especially disturbing that most crimes are committed by offenders under 25 years of age. But what is also clear from studies is that the fear of crime in the US may be outstripping the actual commission of crimes.

While such a complex subject cannot be addressed in a few short paragraphs, the gathering at the Kennedy Library did bring out several points that US officials and the public should explore:

* As suggested by Lynn A. Curtis, president of the Eisenhower Foundation for the Prevention of Violence, businesses must be integrated into neighborhood and community anticrime efforts. Residents and business people must "look out for one another."

* The media must be more judicious in their presentation of "crime news." The public needs to be alerted to genuine dangers. But too often what the public receives from the media merely heightens the fear of crime without in any way contributing to a solution of the problem.

* The entertainment industry must do a better job of policing itself and expunging violence from television and films. Whether the figure is 18,000, or only 10,000, as some participants noted, the average American child has seen thousands of homicides committed in films by the time the teen-age years are reached. That should be considered intolerable in a humane society.

* Finally, more needs to be known about the linkage of crime, alcohol, and drugs.

Crime remains a serious challenge to Americans. Yet what must not be overlooked is that many individuals are seeking solutions to the problem -- and posting not inconsiderable victories along the way.

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