Small Towns Fight Big-City Crime

Across the US, rural police chiefs are fighting gangs, drugs, and other urban-style crime, but some towns such as Marshalltown, Iowa, have their own solutions

WELL away from America's big cities, and a turnpike away from suburban calm, many rural towns and outlying counties are now grappling with an urban-like intrusion: rising incidents of violent juvenile crime.

Hard national statistics are difficult to come by. But if a spot check of more than two-dozen small town and county officials across the country by the Monitor is any guide, gang violence, teen drug dealing, and other offenses common in inner cities are now a big concern for their more bucolic counterparts.

``We're seeing every kind of crime you'd see now in Chicago or New York,'' says John Justice, a solicitor in rural South Carolina. ``In juvenile court it's rare to see a 16- or 18-year-old kid with any parents there to be with him. Instead he has already fathered two kids and doesn't have a job.''

Local officials say the same conditions, cited as the social causes of big-city juvenile crime, also contribute to teen crimes in rural areas. These include broken families with little supervision over youths, abuse of alcohol and drugs, peer pressure, access to weapons, and dropping out of school. They also cite limited job opportunities and the influence of TV, movies, and music videos that promote violence.

Rural juvenile crime is not a well-studied phenomenon. But when areas like Marshalltown, Iowa, Chester, S.C., and Yakima County, Wash., have drive-by shootings, local officials say the cause could be either incipient gang activity or random ``copy cat'' shootings. Either way, it's an increasingly disturbing phenomenon.

``We have some upstart gangs,'' says Capt. David Joswiack of Marshalltown, a town of 26,000. ``But at this point it's hard to tell how strong they are.''

For many small towns, the flow of drugs from nearby large cities contributes to juvenile crime. ``We're between Dallas and Houston,'' says Jimmy Fisher, police chief of Crockett, Texas, population 8,000, ``and we get a lot of juveniles stopping by to educate our youth in drugs and gangs.''

In California, as drug markets have become saturated in cities, dealers are expanding into rural areas. ``Turf protection leads to violence,'' says Ken Hurdle, consultant to the state Senate. ``In some cases local officials, who are part time, don't want to get involved with these violent kids.''

In Ottawa, Kan., a town of 11,000 about 45 miles from Kansas City, Police Capt. Charles Bowling says, ``We have gang activity here, probably dropouts and kids kicked out by their parents.'' Juvenile arrests for assaults and drug violations in Ottawa went from eight in 1993 to 33 in 1994.

``We're seeing a reduction in violent crimes in the city of Yakima,'' says Jeffery Sullivan, Yakima County prosecutor. ``But we have an explosion of juvenile crime in general, and juvenile violent crime. I have three juvenile-justice attorneys handling 1,800 cases a year, that's about three times what each should handle.''

``Crime in the suburbs and rural areas, particularly violent crime, is on the rise here,'' says Kathleen O'Toole, secretary of public safety in Massachusetts. ``A few years back only Boston had gangs, but now Holyoke and Springfield in the central part of the state have gang activity and drug problems.''

TO respond to the rising juvenile crime, some towns have formed new community groups dedicated to finding solutions. Others have initiated curfews or expanded existing youth programs. In Marshalltown, Iowa, ideas from a community forum last April led to a Youth and Violence Committee and $150,000 in state grants.

``Many communities think schools and parents should be dealing with the problems,'' says Ed Geicke, Marshalltown's city administrator, ``but we take a different tack and focus on the parents.''

As part of an overall program to reach troubled parents and children, Marshalltown now offers divorced parents a neutral place to exchange children and have supervised visits. ``We provide angry parents a place where anger is not part of the visits when the children go back and forth,'' says Jayne Bullock, a family-services coordinator in Marshall County, ``and we offer monitored visits.''

Other community-based programs gaining prominence include drug education and assistance programs for juveniles, counseling for parents, three- and four-day school antidrug programs, and parenting programs for expectant mothers and fathers. ``We saw the trend in rural violence,'' says Ms. O'Toole in Massachusetts, ``and expanded our community-policing-program funding to help communities find solutions.''

In 1994 the state provided $11 million in grants to 169 police departments across the state. The results ranged from neighborhood crime-watch groups, police on bicycles along main streets, summer camps for at-risk kids, self-esteem programs for dropouts, and a state police program of school-room visitations. ``We'll have kids participating in programs 12 months a year,'' says O'Toole, ``because we have to stay ahead of the curve.''

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