Fighting crime in Guilford

October 22, 1992

It is a sign of the times that 50 property owners in Guilford, one of Baltimore City's most affluent neighborhoods, are paying $10 a week to hire off-duty policemen to patrol streets and safeguard property. Guilford has never been known as a nest of rampant crime but the fear of lawlessness clearly is present there, too. By hiring professionals, Guilford residents are buying peace of mind.

Guilford's experiment with a private security force has some observers of the urban scene upset. Private security forces pit "neighborhood against neighborhood," asserts one scholar, labeling such efforts as undemocratic.

C'mon.

The only difference between Guilford and a number of neighborhoods sponsoring such anti-crime efforts as Citizens on Patrol is that Guilford residents are hiring others to do a job poorer neighborhoods choose to do with their own volunteers.

There is nothing particularly undemocratic about these kinds of extra efforts to deter crime. Forms may vary but the goal is the same. In each case, citizens are involved in crime-deterrence in a way they can afford.

We are far more concerned about the adverse psychological effects that fear and unceasing watchfulness introduce to neighborhoods.

An innocent night-time visitor trying to locate a poorly lit entrance on a strange street suddenly becomes a would-be burglar. Any foreign sound -- even one caused by a trespassing squirrel -- begins rattling the nerves. If a siege mentality sets in, even such pleasurable diversions as evening walks are threatened.

We have observed phenomena like these in other countries, where circumstances, admittedly, are quite different.

In Kenya, for example, most businesses and substantial residences have a full-time night watchman posted outside. Some sit in a sentry box. Others huddle around fires, wrapped in blankets, trying to keep warm.

In the wee hours of the night, these unarmed men are often sound asleep. So are their employers who, instead of safety, have obtained for themselves the best illusion of safety their level of affluence could buy.

Concern about and alertness toward crime are often necessary survival tactics in today's urban centers.

But an equally important survival tactic is a psychological sense of proportion. It keeps neighborhoods viable -- and enables residents to have a peaceful night.

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