It was the sort of crime that has become so common in Washington that it rates no mention in the paper. A visitor to the city, returning to his hotel room while the night sky is still light, is attacked from behind by three young men, apparently with an iron rod. The man goes down, unconscious, with a broken clavicle and damage to his eye.

A driver, passing by, witnesses the crime and suddenly turns her car around, frightening the assailants away before they can rob the man. She calls the police, and an ambulance takes him to the hospital.

Less than an hour later, about eight blocks away, three assailants strike another man, beat him severely and take his wallet. Again, they escape without anyone being able to identify or stop them.

Cowardly crimes such as these occur frequently throughout urban America, but the criminals are rarely identified, much less brought to ground. And yet, day and night, police cars cruise the city, no doubt crossing the paths of marauding criminals before and after their attacks. The police cannot stop and frisk people without probable cause, but is there anything to prevent their videotaping the human traffic along our public thoroughfares?

Video cameras capable of capturing images night or day are well within the budget of every police force in this country. They can be held in one hand or mounted on a swivel and run off batteries or an adapter in the vehicle's cigarette lighter. Videotape is cheap, erasable and reusable. It can also supply police with potential leads when street crimes are committed.

If that had been the case a few nights ago, police investigators could have reviewed tapes recorded by cruisers in the area to help the victims or witnesses identify the attackers.

No such system exists, and so the three attackers who struck that night will likely strike again, injuring, perhaps killing other innocent people.

The streets should belong to all the people, but as any urbanite or ex-urbanite knows, that ground was long ago ceded to thugs. Perhaps if those criminals knew they were likely to be caught on camera, the risks of street crime would seem far greater than the few dollars they might gain from a robbery or mugging. It might also serve to allow the public to feel a tiny bit more secure in public places. -- Peter J. Ognibene