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Half of Area Residents in Fear, Post Poll Finds

By Richard Morin and Claudia Deane,

Half of all Washington area residents fear they could become a victim of the serial sniper, whose murderous three-week rampage has spread anger, fear and anxiety throughout the region and altered the way many people work, shop and play, according to a Washington Post poll.

The survey found that 50 percent of those interviewed were at least somewhat fearful of falling victim to the sniper and that 28 percent were at least a little concerned. Only one in five -- 19 percent -- said they had no fear of becoming the sniper's next victim.

A larger proportion of Washington area residents -- more than four in 10 -- said the sniper shootings made them feel more personally threatened than did either the Sept. 11 attacks or the anthrax scare, according to the poll completed last night, before police identified a man wanted for questioning in connection with the sniperincidents. A juvenile companion is also being sought.

"It's been kind of frightening and scary at times," said Tony Banks, 33, an administrative clerk living in Lanham. "Before I get scared, I get angry."

"I don't live in New York; I don't work at the Pentagon," said a 52-year-old Bladensburg resident who was so frightened by the sniperthat she declined to give her name. "But the sniper is going from Washington to Ashland. He was right on Georgia Avenue. That is right near here. . . . He's right in my back yard."

At the same time, a weary and anxious public overwhelmingly endorsed efforts by law enforcement to capture the killer or killers responsible for 10 deaths and three injuries in attacks that began Oct. 2. Eight in 10 said police and other law enforcement agencies have done an "excellent" or "good" job so far handling the sniperinvestigation.

A similarly large majority believed police were doing all they could to prevent the attacks and were confident that the authorities would be able to find the person or persons responsible.

About half of the poll's respondents said law enforcement was giving the public the right amount of information about the sniper and their investigation, though four in 10 said the police have at times provided too many specifics about their tactics.

While some critics have complained that authorities have gone too far in closing area roads after recent sniper shootings, more than six in 10 said the police response has been about right. And one in five said authorities should have gone even further and closed down more streets to catch the elusive killer.

Despite the sniper's menacing threat that "your children are not safe anywhere at any time," about half of residents rejected calling out the National Guard to guard area schools, a view shared by similar proportions of parents and those without school-age children.

A total of 604 randomly selected residents in the District, the Maryland suburbs and in Northern Virginia were interviewed by phone yesterday for this survey. Margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

The survey found that the sniper attacks have altered the way many area residents go about the routine tasks of life.

Almost half said the shootings have disrupted their lives. More than four in 10 said they're avoiding outdoor activities. Nearly as many report that they've switched service stations or changed the way they fill their gas tanks. A third are avoiding certain stores or shopping centers that are close to interstate highways or wooded areas, locales favored by the sniper.

"I don't even go out anymore, even to go out at night to visit someone or to go to a nightclub," said secretary Karla Butler, 31, a District resident.

Butler said she and her neighbors feel safer in her Southeast neighborhood than in the suburbs. "I don't think with the kind of urban area that this is that he would come to this area. I live in Southeast, and a lot of people feel that way. Everyone is comfortable purchasing gas."

Parents are particularly concerned, the survey found. Six in 10 said they've limited their children's outdoor activities to protect them from the sniper. One in four have kept their children home from school or picked them up early. One in six have made new arrangements to get their children to school so they don't have to wait for the school bus.

Said Sandy Colwell, 46, a day-care provider in Fairfax County: "Today, one little 4-year-old came to my house and said, 'My mommy told me I couldn't go outside today because a man might shoot me.' "

Colwell said she's kept her granddaughter home from school. "The older kids are the ones that are afraid. I was walking my granddaughter to school, and two little fifth-grade girls were crying. They didn't want to go in."

Like most residents surveyed, she believes the schools "are doing well," but unlike most of the public, she wishes "they'd pull in the National Guard. I think we need it."

The sniper attacks have changed the way residents feel even more than the way they act. Three in four said the attacks have angered them. Slightly more than half -- 53 percent -- said they've felt "anxious or tense" as a result of the sniper situation. Fifty-six percent said they felt sad or depressed, while 30 percent said they have had trouble concentrating.

While 18 percent said the random killings have moved them to tears, an overwhelming majority -- eight in 10 -- said they've prayed for the victims and their families.

"One of the most heartening things that happened through all of this is when the wife of the victim in Ashland said to pray for the attacker," said Cindy Lindgren, 38, a homemaker in St. Mary's County. But Lindgren allowed that she didn't "think about doing that as much as I should. This is a lost person."

Women in the region were significantly more likely to report being concerned about becoming a victim: 60 percent were at least somewhat concerned, compared with 40 percent of men. They were also more likely than men to say they have felt anxious and depressed, and nearly three in 10 said the sniper situation had reduced them to tears sometime during the past few weeks.

When it came to anger, though, men had no problem letting their feelings show: Three in four professed feeling outrage, roughly the same as the proportion of women who said they were angry.

© The Washington Post Company