Crime is down in the Northern Virginia suburbs. To discuss that development as well as other topics, The Virginia Weekly invited the police chiefs of four major Northern Virginia jurisdictions to a luncheon last week.

Attending were chiefs Charles T. Strobel of Alexandria, William K. Stover of Arlington County, Carroll D. Buracker of Fairfax County, and George Owens of Prince William County.

Questioning the four were Virginia Editor Bill McAllister, Weekly Editor Don Nunes, staff writers Patricia E. Bauer, Molly Moore, Nancy Scannell, Leah Latimer, Michel Marriott, Paul Hodge, Ron Shaffer, Alfred E. Lewis and columnist Judy Mann.

The following is an edited transcript of that luncheon:

Q: Arlington's crime is down by 17 percent, Fairfax County's by 11.6 percent, Alexandria's by 6 or 7 percent, and Prince William expects a decline, too. Why?

OWENS: . . . My observation is that one of the biggest factors--and I think it's several, I don't think it's any one--but I think one of the biggest is the Neighborhood Watch programs where the citizens are actively getting involved. Also I think Crime Stoppers has an impact on it. The major offenders programs where you target career criminals are having an impact, too because we certainly know that a few people cause us the most problems . . . .

STROBEL: . . . We had a community in Alexandria that is identified as the Warwick Village Community and there were some very interested members in that community as it related to Crime Watch or Neighborhood Watch programs. And statistically, after the implementation of the crime Neighborhood Watch program done by the community with the assistance of the police, the crime stats reflected a 98.2 percent decrease in crime, with no added police surveillance or deployment over a 10-month period . . . .

It takes a few sensational incidents to occur within the community to get the interest of the community, unfortunately. We went from about two or three programs in the course of six months to now 22 programs because of a few incidents that had occurred.

Q: Are you talking about like a major crime?

STROBEL: Yes, the unfortunate death of a person in Parkfairfax. We have tried to get Parkfairfax to work with the Neighborhood Watch Program for several years and now we understand that by mid-March to the end of March we will have the total community of Parkfairfax involved in the Neighborhood Watch Program. And I pretty much feel that it is because of that one isolated incident that occurred there. . . .

Neighborhood Watch to me is nothing necessarily unique to our society. It is something that we did as ordinary citizens years ago, automatically. We felt a sense of community, we felt concerned about our neighbors, we felt that, you know, whatever we did in our community was to the benefit of the community. And right now we're calling it a Neighborhood Watch. But we're just asking communities to go back and be the communities that they used to be.

BURACKER: . . . It actually goes back before our forefathers, all the way back to the 12th century, when King John had decreed that all citizens would help bring lawbreakers to justice when you heard the hue and cry. Well, I think Neighborhood Watch today is a contemporary hue and cry. We're seeing more and more community involvement. On any given day in my community they may have upwards of 1,000 citizens--that's 1,000--riding around some of those communities with signs on their cars saying 'Neighborhood Watch.'

Traditionally, burglary in the suburbs has been perpetrated by youths who either live in that community or contiguous communities. Certainly, Neighborhood Watch has served as a deterrent in that respect, because they actually see Mrs. Jones who lives down the street participating and calling in.

Where you're dealing with a hardened criminal, . . . they don't know that any car which they might see might be someone calling in on them. That service certainly is a deterrent . . . .

Q: What other factors are involved?

STROBEL: . . . We all . . . target repeat offenders. We've begun passing on the files of hardened criminals . . . to prosecutors. I think Arlington may have started that first. We picked up on it in Alexandria . . .

STOVER: First off, the Habitual Offender Program has been known by law enforcement people for a long time. We've been saying, hey, all the population is not crooks. The majority of the people that we're dealing with that are committing most of the violent crimes or the index crimes are people who have been in the system before. They're repeat violators . . . . They have records of two or three armed robberies and then they're out on bail or personal recognizance and they're out doing what? Committing more crimes, waiting to come to trial . . . .

What the habitual program is all about in Arlington, we assign investigators to track them and we give the habitual offender special attention and we expedite his case through the system, as opposed to waiting six months, or nine months, or a year, to try that individual. And I think it's a big plus . . . .

We've made some good apprehensions as a result of that and I think it's an important part of it because, let's face it, the bottom line is on the police: we can have the best-trained police department, and one of the best in this country. But if the prosecutor doesn't prosecute and if the courts don't convict and if you don't have space to put the hard-core criminal in the overcrowded detention center, the system doesn't work.

It makes no difference how good Arlington County Police Department is in responding, because if that doesn't occur you're back to spot one and you got the old revolving door again.

STROBEL: . . . Sometimes a crook's back on the street before the officer gets back to his patrol, in the literal sense that it takes someone three, four, five convictions on burglary to be sent away to prison in the kind of environment that we police are in. Now, you commit a burglary down the road in Luray, Va., you're going to go away for 10 years the first time, probably.

Q: Are you saying that the courts are too lenient?

STROBEL: Yes.

STOVER: I think we all agree.

STROBEL: . . . To give you an example, we had a robbery in Prince William County, individuals were pursued, chased into Fairfax County, then into Alexandria, and subsequently lost. We had a robbery in Alexandria by the same individuals--and we're talking about just moments apart--who commandeered another automobile, jumped in that car and were chased through Alexandria, into Arlington and then into the District before you got a roadblock set up to apprehend them.

Well, four apprehensions were made and all for heinous felonies . . . . They were brought back to Alexandria and placed on a $2,500 bond. Subsequently, one was released on personal recognizance that evening before the reports had been completed by the police. The next night we had a robbery of a Pizza Hut. We chased the suspects in an automobile and we chased them through Arlington County and set up successfully another roadblock. We made an apprehension. Guess who we apprehended?

Q: The same guy?

STROBEL: Right. Who was then released on a $2,500 bond? Guess who's back out in the community robbing them until he's picked up for a third time. Now, with all the career criminal programs and police effort, . . . what are we really gaining if in fact we have a system that is responding to us in this way ? Is the community aware of it? Apparently not as much as they should be.

Q: Do you meet with your judges?

STOVER: Judges will not meet with us. Let me tell you what the judges'll tell you: 'Well, I can't sit down and discuss that because I have to remain neutral.' I said, 'The case has already been tried, Judge. I mean, you can't sit down and talk policy or talk about the problems from your perception?' 'Well, no. I hope you understand, I gotta remain neutral.'

I'm law enforcement, that's true, and maybe I'm a little prejudiced. But laying all that aside, I think the police have improved vastly in the last 10 years in their approach. But I submit that, perhaps in the area of the courts, they're still in the horse-and-buggy days, including the criteria for selection of competent judges . . . .

BURACKER: I'll offer one comment on that in the area of the judiciary. I think that there are areas that need improvement in the judiciary. I might add, though, that I've seen in Fairfax County a little change in philosophy and attitude in the disposition of court cases in the past couple of years, due in part I think to public sentiment, new legislative initiatives at the state level, and it ranges I think from criminal offenses all the way to drunk driving . . . .

But I think--and I do meet with the judges occasionally, Fairfax County juvenile judges will often meet with me on a thing--one has to recognize the independence of the judiciary issue. And I don't always agree with their decisions because I'm concerned about repeat offenders being released back into society .

I wouldn't say that it's universal; there are some outstanding judges, circuit level and lower court level and juvenile court . . . and we see people who are released on technicalities that sometimes the judges have no control over because of the rules of evidence . . . .

STROBEL: . . . I don't mean to be indicting the judiciary as it relates to trials and sentencing but I do suggest or submit to you for consideration: The police years ago came under a lot of scrutiny and I think appropriately so and we improved as a result of the scrutiny that we were subject to . . . .

BURACKER: I have great admiration for certain court judges . . . . We're talking about Neighborhood Watch, so let's think about a court-watch program. I'm not suggesting that the police scrutinize the activities of the court. But I am suggesting that perhaps the community is concerned about how their particular court is ruling and in what fashion that they are ruling and what fashion are they sentencing and dealing with people who come into the criminal justice system.

Q: Isn't that what Mothers Against Drunk Driving has done in traffic court?

BURACKER: Yes.

STOVER: But why should it take that kind of tragedy drunk driving deaths to draw attention to the courts for them to do their job? . . .

Q: Has 911, the new telephone number for emergency service, helped at all?

BURACKER: Well, yes. I think 911 has helped. We still find that 20 percent of the calls are not emergency calls, so that's a problem for us . . . .

Q: What is the percentage of people arrested coming from D.C. in Arlington?

STOVER: For burglary--and I'm ballparking this--it'd probably be somewhere about 15 to 20 percent in Arlington. However, by contrast, if you were to talk about armed robberies, then it's probably about 68 percent.

Q: What is the percentage of people arrested coming from D.C. in Alexandria?

STROBEL: . . . It depends on the category of crime you're talking about. If you're talking about the more heinous crimes, or strong-arm robbery, or homicide that's not family related, chances are we're looking toward Washington, D.C., or Prince George's County . . . . If we're looking at burglary, larceny, property crime, I think that you're looking pretty close to home base i.e. Alexandria . . . .

I can't back it up today, but the more heinous the kind of crime--I'm talking about the strong-arm robbery, . . . bank robbery, the larger institutions, that sort of thing--chances are we'll be chasing them down Interstate 395 through Arlington County and to the 14th Street bridge into Washington .

Q: Has Metro increased crime there?

STOVER: Metro has not increased serious offenses in Arlington. We have kept a very close track of that. You will see around the Metro stations offenses such as purse snatching, maybe indecent exposure types of offenses, some vandalism. Those kinds of crimes. But nothing as far as the index serious crimes . . . .