Fighting Crime Together

For eight days, the Press-Telegram will explore the problem of crime.

Our reporters will look at how it happens, to whom it happens, where and when it happens, why it is happening more than ever (or seems to be), and what we can do about it. Also, we will share views of crime as expressed by our readers. The views are excerpted from about 1,000 responses we received to a questionnaire we published weeks ago.

Some reading will be tough, especially the letters, the first of which appear today on pages A12 and A13. You will read of innocent citizens who have lost their lives. And of an elderly Cerritos woman who, after a year of terrible pain from injuries suffered in a mugging, received a victim's compensation award of only $50.

But this week you will find bright rays of hope as well. You will read of government and neighborhood programs that are making a difference. You will see the thought expressed, repeatedly, that we can reduce crime if we all get involved.

Frightful as the crime problem can seem, none of it is new. We have been there before.

A journalist named John Holt wrote of "such various attempts to rob, and so many robberies actually committed ... both day and night, it has become hazardous for any person to walk in the latter."

Holt was writing about New York City. In the year 1762.

Not even gangs are unique to modern times (although the firepower to which they have access is unprecedented). For 90 years, 1825 to 1915, gangs virtually ruled some of our major cities.

The gang rein of terror ended with a wave of social reform and - civil libertarians will not like this - a heavy use of police batons.

(One significant difference in how we deal with crime today: We incarcerate more offenders than ever. About 1 million are currently in prisons, jails or other punitive facilities. That is, roughly, 1 in every 250 Americans. In 1850, the rate was about 1 in 3,000. We are one of the world's most punitive societies. Yet, crime marches on.)

This week, you will read figures purporting to show that crime has actually decreased slightly in recent months. You may question the figures, as I did. But the truth may be that our perception of the problem is worse than the problem itself.

This is understandable. Night after night, TV brings violence into our living rooms with shocking graphic redundancy, as it did during the Vietnam War. On most local newscasts, the top stories are about crime.

Newspapers, too, have become daily purveyors of horror - carjackings, drive-by shootings, multiple murders, and such.

Thus, in reporting the news, the media, unwittingly, may feed fear along with fact. How this affects viewers and readers is an iffy question, and one which, it appears, is only beginning to be studied by the media.

In that regard, readers appear to be ahead of the news industry. They have given much thought to media coverage of crime, as evidenced in the letters to us.

Some want us to increase crime news. Others want us to reduce or even eliminate it. Still others, who feel we glamorize crime and criminals, suggest that crime news be reported on an inside page, in a sort of Joe Friday, "just the facts" treatment.

Studying the crime problem - or any problem - realistically means rethinking all its aspects virtually from scratch. And rethinking anything is not easy to do. It means discarding (even temporarily) old and often cherished ideas. It means entertaining new concepts which, at first, may seem absurd.

Legalization of drugs is an example of the latter. It may not be a good idea. (At present, I happen to think it is a bad idea.) But if we are unwilling to explore it, and other seemingly radical ideas, we are deceiving ourselves.

That brings us to the purpose of the series we hope you are about to read (and of the additional attention we will give to the crime problem in the weeks and months ahead). Whatever you think of the stories and however much you may disagree with some findings, we at the Press-Telegram hope you will be stimulated enough to join the growing number of your neighbors who already are - to use our own slogan - fighting crime together.

As time goes on, we will look for more and more ways in which you can do this.

Stay with us. We'll beat this thing yet.