The subject was crime. The object was prevention. And the audience was paying close, if unpleasant, attention.

"People are worried. The elderly are petrified. Something has to be done," said Larry Chambers, organizer of a recent, homegrown crime prevention workshop at Yorktown High School attended by more than 200 North Arlington neighbors. "I just don't think we ought to live that way."

Chambers, the owner of a job placement service in Arlington, called the meeting to set up a citizen surveillance program in the quiet, middle-class area of single-family homes surrounding Yorktown. With the help of his wife and neighbor Lynn Wright, 120 letters were hand-delivered asking people to attend. Few arms, he said, had to be twisted.

"Almost everybody I talked to had either been robbed or knew somebody who had," said Wright. "I could have stayed with each person for half an hour to hear a sob story."

While inflation has replaced crime as the national topic of debate, the euphemistic "average citizen" has not shelved any private concern. The crime rate in Northern Virginia rose an average of 7 percent in 1979 over the previous year and police officials say there are no indications an economic recession will do anything to slow that rate.

One response to the increase in burglaries, larcenies and other crimes against property which plague suburban households has been to invest in double bolt locks and alarm systems. A more cooperative approach has been the formation of neighborhood surveilance programs similar to the one at Yorktown.

In the past two years, police departments in Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax County have initiated a variety of programs that depend on citizens reaponse. All three jurisdictions have neighborhood watch programs based on a national model.

"We stole it, in effect, from the National Sheriff's Association," said Warren R. Carmichael, a spokesman for the Fairfax County Police Department. Each of the seven district police stations in Fairfax has an officer assigned to aid neighborhoods and apartment complexes in forming a system for individual security and mutual protection.

Neighbors are assigned to watch each others' homes for suspicious activity. Individual homes are given free security inspections. Indentification numbers are engraved on personal property. And, in some areas, citizens patrol their neighborhoods in groups.

"Those who participate . . . are not just put out there as vigilantes," said Carmichael. "I'm happy to say, to date, I am not aware of any instance of citizen patrols in any way affronting, confronting or injuring anyone else. We are very positive about now well this is working."

Fairfax County also has a program called Crime Solvers, which encourages citizens to report tips on crimes under investigation. Rewards are paid to callers upon indictment of suspects. During the first six months of the program 18 arrests have been made as a result of 296 calls. Rewards totaling $1,200 have been paid while stolen property valued at $82,600 has been recovered, said Carmichael.

The Neighborhood Watch program in Alexandria led recently to the arrest of a man police believe was responsible for half a dozen burglaries in the Cloverway section of the city.

"We have a little chart we set up. We figure out who's going to watch whose house. That kind of awarness can have a dramatic effect on preventing crime," said a spokesman for Alexandria police.

"The whole key to crime resistance is education of the citizens," said Lt. John Quade, of the Arlington Police Department. "For example, everybody doesn't lock it. Forty percent of cars stolen (in Arlington) have keys left in the ignition."

Quade and the four other officers in Arlington's Crime Resistance office spend most of their working hours inspecting homes or lecturing the public on ways to avoid the opportunity for crime. In January and February of this year, the department conducted 168 "premise surveys" for private homes and 21 inspections of county buildings. During those same months, they appeared before 35 citizen groups.

"I'll be perfectly blunt with you, we do not have enough police. No police department in the country does," Quade told the audience at Yorktown. Quade was not invited to the Yorktown meeting. He called Chambers and invited himself.

"The reason I didn't call, is every time somebody has a meeting it turns into a public discussion rather than an organizational thing," explained Chambers.

Quade brought with him statistics which showed that crime had actually decreased in 1979 over the previous year in the area designated By Arlington planners as Census Tract Two, where most of the residents at the meeting live. But for the 5,814 residents of the area, bordered on the north by Old Dominion Drive and the west by the Fairfax County line, the statistics were still distrubing.

"This neighborhood is actually relatively lucky," said Quade after reading off the crime list for last year that included 51 burglaries, 139 larcenies and 16 assaults.

"We might be relatively lucky, but we're sure not safe," said one woman at meeting's end.