WHENEVER New York State Attorney General Robert Abrams extolled the virtues of freedom and democracy while visiting the Soviet Union in recent years, he would always get questions about urban fear of crime. ``The Soviets would say, `But aren't many people prisoners of their apartments or communities?' '' He says the question is becoming much more difficult to answer. Those listening to his words - several hundred Manhattan residents gathered on 47th Street in the shadow of the United Nations for one of the city's several rallies at the Aug. 7 National Night Out Against Crime - understood perfectly.
A recent surge in random gun violence in New York City that has resulted in the deaths of five children and injuries to two others in recent weeks has heightened citizen concern and bolstered the city's determination to fight back. City Councilwoman Carol Greitzer spoke for many at the rally in insisting: ``We're not going to let criminals take our streets and parks away from us.''
New York City ranked a relatively low 13th on a per-capita basis among the 25 largest cities in the most recent Federal Bureau of Investigation national crime report. Yet in total crimes, New York continues to be No. 1. The number of murders, which reached 1,905 in 1989, is this year already more than one-third higher than the figure at this time last year. Just during the last week of July police received 1,745 reports of shots fired.
Of greatest concern to most New Yorkers is the random nature of much of the crime, its incursion into once-safe neighborhoods, and the casual use of guns to solve every dispute. Last week a fast-food worker in Brooklyn was shot dead when he asked a patron to pay for his chicken dinner. Many New Yorkers also feel that too many criminals get off too easily. ``Certainty of punishment is much more important than its severity,'' says Dr. Mitchell Moss, director of New York University's Urban Research Center.
Mayor David Dinkins has now heard the grass-roots message loud and clear. He had pledged during his campaign to be ``the toughest mayor on crime this city has ever seen.'' Yet for budget reasons he had delayed hiring new police recruits. However, in early August the mayor announced that money would be found in service cuts to hire an extra 1,058 officers next spring. The city police force numbered 31,700 in 1970 but is now less than 26,000.
Police Commissioner Lee Brown, Houston's former chief of police, has said the city needs 5,000 more police. He and the mayor want to move away from a pattern of centralized police response to radioed emergencies and return to a system of ``community policing'' by which police are assigned to specific neighborhoods. The hope is that by working closely with citizens there, they can develop strategies to prevent crime as well as respond to incidents that occur. New York already has 10-member teams based in each of its 75 precincts. Police Academy graduates will now be assigned to such units for their first six months of duty.
Easy access to guns, particularly assault weapons, is widely viewed as a major factor in the city's crime problem. New York Gov. Mario Cuomo's attempts to pass a state ban on automatic assault weapons - following the lead of California, New Jersey, and several individual cities - have been blocked by the legislature.
``I don't understand why criminals are allowed to have assault weapons here - there's no deer hunting in New York City,'' says Thomas Reppetto, president of the business-sponsored Citizens Crime Commission of New York City. ``The term `assault' tells what they're for. They're designed for commandos to kill a maximum number of people in a minimum amount of time.''
Mayor Dinkins's recently announced 60-day amnesty for those who turn in illegal guns is seen as a positive but largely ineffective gesture. The Metropolitan Transit Authority police propose keeping up with criminals by shifting their weapons from handguns to semiautomatic pistols, but city officials, concerned about the potential for added danger, request that a final decision be delayed.
Ordinary New Yorkers are also taking action.
Block associations in Greenwich Village where an advertising executive was recently killed in a robbery at a pay telephone have hired a private security patrol. A group called the Pink Panthers is patrolling some sections of the area to prevent violence against homosexuals. Hundreds of other individuals, like Millie Margiotta of Manhattan, have volunteered to work as auxiliary police officers for a minimum eight hours a month. After four months of training, they patrol the streets in uniform with citizen partners. They carry radios, rather than guns, reporting any problems to the nearest police precinct. ``We're like the eyes and ears of the police department,'' says Ms. Margiotta.