Thwarting crime -- community watchfulness can outdo vigilantes

It's been a year since Bernhard Goetz earned himself the sobriquet ``subway vigilante'' by pulling a gun and firing on four young black men he contends were about to rob him. But, though Mr. Goetz's action was initially greeted with a groundswell of support, New Yorkers have not necessarily gone out, armed themselves, and ``fought back'' against crime in the same way. In the aftermath of the incident, there was speculation that a public, frustrated with policing and the criminal-justice system, might want to emulate Goetz.

``I am very pleased that in the last year there has not been an endemic or systemic increase in vigilantism,'' says Gerald W. Lynch, president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, who adds that he did have such fears at first.

In fact, crime -- including subway crime -- is generally down this year, following a trend that began early in the '80s. In the first 10 months of 1985, according to a spokesman for the transit police, felonies in the subways were down 9.9 percent. Both robberies and felony assaults were down, although murders and pickpocketings were up recently.

The Goetz incident occurred Dec. 22, 1984, when the electronics engineer was approached by the four youths. One asked Goetz if he had $5. Goetz reportedly said, ``I have $5 for each of you;'' then shot the youths.

Goetz, who had been injured in a previous mugging, was initially charged only with criminal possession of a weapon. But after a reassessment of the case, it was submitted once again to a grand jury, and Goetz was charged with attempted murder. A New York City judge is now considering a motion to dismiss the murder indictment.

Nationwide, vigilante acts do occur. In Fort Worth, Texas, a group of high school students were indicted in March for various felonies and misdemeanors stemming from a so-called vigilante effort seeking to get rid of crime and drugs in their high school.

In August, Los Angeles residents chased and beat the prime suspect in the ``night stalker'' murders.

In Florida this fall, a number of residents were robbed while sitting in backed-up traffic on major thruways. In retaliation, several motorists ran down pedestrians -- some innocent -- whom they suspected to be robbers.

However, these, more-often-than-not spontaneous acts do not add up to a nationwide trend, says Prof. Richard Maxwell Brown, a historian at the University of Oregon and an expert on vigilantism. What has occurred has been an increase of ``quasi-vigilante'' groups, ranging from neighborhood watch groups to the Guardian Angels, an urban group in various cities made up mainly of minority youths.

``But these groups seldom take the law into their own hands, a hallmark of vigilantism,'' Dr. Brown says. Police were very wary when the groups first began to appear but now support some of them.

A spokesman for the National Sheriffs Association says he has not heard reports of much vigilante action, particularly after the death of the leader of the Posse Comitatus, a quasi-vigilante, antitax, racist, militant group located in the Midwest.

What the Goetz incident did show was that there is still much frustration with the criminal-justice system. Although law and order was a big issue during the 1960s and '70s, it waned as a political concern in the '80s. Today, crime is again becoming a major topic nationwide -- for communities and their leaders.

Many observers say the drop in subway crime here is related to the increased presence of transit police. Others maintain that the Goetz action affected the criminal element in the subways of New York City.

``Guys are thinking twice; there is more intense evaluation'' of potential victims, says Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels in New York. Some people feel this is a vigilante group -- a notion Mr. Sliwa rejects.

Sliwa says the Goetz incident has not, however, encouraged New Yorkers to take to the streets and chase muggers. Though, immediately after the incident, local newspapers virtually scoured the city for people who foiled criminals, ``little has changed.''

Instead of seeking to take the law into their own hands, citizens should demand, fight for, and elect good politicians, who will appoint accountable law-enforcement and judicial officials, says Dr. Lynch of John Jay College. He also says police should work closely with communities, talk to area residents, and encourage neighborhood watch groups and community-improvement efforts.

``Developing community esprit de corps helps in moving crime away,'' Lynch says.

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