Ed Flynn is a police chief. Like most cops, he's tough on crime. And he thinks the way to get tougher still is clear. Would that be metal detectors? Hiring more cops? Prosecuting more juveniles as adults? Stricter gun laws?

Nope. Flynn is talking about after-school programs and better child care.

If you think this Arlington County, Va., police chief is unusual, think again. Nine out of 10 chiefs polled last fall for an organization called Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, agreed that: "If America does not make greater investments in after-school and educational child care programs to help children and youth now, we will pay far more later in crime, welfare and other costs."

"At the end of the day, we're the poor-people police, and particularly poor youth," said Flynn over lunch recently. "Early on, we learn who's headed for trouble. The greatest frustration is the juvenile crime problem, and the inability to link up resources" that could help the kids who need them.

It's that conviction that moved Flynn to join the board of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. Its members are law enforcement officers, prosecutors and crime victims. Fight Crime is the creation of a lawyer named Sanford Newman, who awoke one awful night to find a stranger looming over his newborn's crib. The stranger was caught, and the daughter is fine--she's 16 now. But in the years after that night, Newman kept asking himself the question of what drives crime and came up with conclusions that led him to establish Fight Crime in 1996.

What Newman always found was research showing that, when it comes to crime, getting kids off to the right start makes a huge difference. In a Michigan study of poor kids randomly assigned to an educational preschool program, these 3- to 4-year-olds turned out to be one-fifth as likely to be chronic lawbreakers at age 27 as similar kids without such care.

As for after-school programs, the peak hours for juvenile crime (as with drug use, smoking and drinking and sex) are 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice. A study of an intensive after-school program called Quantum Opportunities showed that the poor high school boys who participated were one-sixth as likely to be convicted of a crime during high school as the kids left out of the program, according to the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence.

With evidence like this confirming what cops pick up from the street, why hasn't this understanding pervaded public policy? Flynn thinks he knows why. From the 1970s, when crime exploded through the roof, swamping prison space, through the 1980s, when crack hit the streets, we've reacted with panic. Policymakers and politicians got locked into the now-sterile debate between tougher laws and better social policy.

Now, we're taking a breath and looking back over 30 years worth of experience. Crime remains high. A demographic bulge that could make it soar again is coming along. Common sense advises us to move out of the old partisan divisions and support programs that work.

"It took a lot of years of high crime and a lot of research to come up with" these conclusions, says Flynn. But now the evidence is clear. Flynn and other law enforcement officers think their support can "give lawmakers permission to pass laws that are not overly harsh. We're covering their right flank." He envisions politicians supporting early childhood education--and explaining their action by saying, "I'm going to be aggressive about prevention because I promised my chief I would."

"It's simple pragmatism," says Flynn. "It's not about being hard on crime or being soft on crime, but about being effective."

Newman goes still further, envisioning "a country that makes these investments and cuts crime in half or even by three-quarters."

The public seems to get this. Another poll commissioned by Fight Crime last fall showed Americans by a 3-to-1 margin saying they'd pay more taxes or forgo a tax cut to give kids more access to child care and after-school programs.

But the politicians are slow to lead. While federal funding for after-school care increased dramatically last year, meaning half a million more kids are in such programs--that still leaves out 39 of 40 latchkey kids, according to Newman. Preschool and after-school programs are on the leading presidential candidates' agendas--but mostly as vague support for the concept.

We need more. When the right thing and the smart thing merge this convincingly, only fools fail to act.