In the Aspen Hill area of Montgomery County last week, where residents live in homes worth $120,000 to $140,000, the investigating detectives agree that "overwhelming community response" was the key to the arrest of the suspect charged in two counts of rape. Sexual assaults had terrorized that community for months.
In Baltimore last week, a novel radio call-in show, designed to get citizens to tip the police off to drug activity in their neighborhoods, resulted in 280 calls, 231 of them "meriting investigation," according to the police.
In one area of Anacostia recently, where most of the homes cost considerably less than those in Aspen Hill, an incident that never occurred -- a report of a rape of a 12-year-old girl, which eventually was found to have been fabricated -- unleashed a torrent of community response. Concerned parents at the Moten Elementary School organized a meeting that drew 400 people and set up their own school security patrols.
And in another area of Anacostia, where 15 women were accosted as they headed for or waited at the bus stops in the early morning, no fewer than five public events were held attracting hundreds of citizens -- many of them residents of the Barry Farms public housing project before the recent arrest of a man suspected of committing one of the attacks.
You often hear it said that crime would not be such a serious problem if the public wasn't so indifferent. It is said that the average person's do-nothing attitude is second only to official neglect. But this tale of three communities tells a different story.
The intensity of the response in Aspen Hill surprised some of the investigating officers. Said one detective, "Mothers were turning in their sons and sisters were calling us about their brothers. As a result of one of those calls, we're investigating a man in another rape not even related to the Aspen Hill cases."
In Baltimore, the purpose of the call-in show was to motivate people to get involved in battling the drug activity in their neighborhoods. The police were happily surprised at the large number of tipsters and the quality of their tips. People came up with automobile license numbers, descriptions, times and locations of alleged narcotics transactions, names of suspected buyers and sellers.
At first glance, the situation in certain neighborhoods in Baltimore and in Southeast Washington seem to bury yet another stereotype about people in low-income neighborhoods not caring about the crime in their midst. But Council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8), who represents Anacostia, a predominantly black and poor neighborhood, said such an image was wrong in the first place.
"I never believed that stereotype," she said. "There is a deep concern here about all kinds of crime. In the Barry Farms area, one Advisory Neighborhood Commission had a meeting and had over 100 people. There's always been intense community concern. It is just that we get poor media coverage. The bottom line is racism in coverage."
It is true that media is often a key in crime detection. Montgomery County detectives said that after stories about the Aspen Hill rapes appeared in the news media, hundreds of pieces of information came in from citizens determined to see the culprit caught. And in Baltimore, the media was the messenger.
These tales of three communities show that citizens can make a difference. And if it once looked as if only certain people had that message, that is becoming a thing of the past. I think it shows that if there is a demonstrated sincere effort on the part of the police and elected officials that they intend to do something about crime, communities will take the risk and respond.
All this makes me happy because it gives me hope. If citizens get involved at this level, maybe there is hope that they will extend that involvement to one day dealing with the social and human problems that in no small measure produce the spiraling crime rates that concern us all.