Send in the Guard? No, Dollars

October 26, 1993

Washington's mayor, Sharon Pratt Kelly, says her police department cannot control crime and needs the assistance of the National Guard. She said she needed the power (which governors have) to call guardsmen to active duty to fight crime, particularly in violent neighborhoods where drug-related crime is routine. President Clinton has responded by passing the issue off to Congress.

What the guardsmen would be expected to do, we are not sure. Nor are we sure the mayor is sure. She has said or implied that guardsmen would and would not be armed, would and would not patrol high crime streets, would and would not man roadblocks. She has even said she would just use the Guard for police administrative chores, thus freeing up police officers now doing those for street duty. (If that's the case, why the National Guard? Just send in the General Accounting Office.)

That something drastic needs to be done about violent street crime in Washington is obvious. There were 443 murders plus 16,237 other crimes of violence there last year. Clearly the local police force has failed. The city is a disaster area, and guardsmen and other troops often go to the rescue of communities hit by disasters. But there are many reasons why calling for the National Guard is not the right way to deal with this disaster.

For one thing, crime in Washington is chronic. Put guardsmen on patrol and even if crime goes down dramatically as a result, when the Guard leaves, criminal activity is likely to go back up. And leave the Guard will. It is a civilian and part-time entity which politicians will not force to patrol dangerous streets or even safe ones for a long time.

Another reason the Guard is not the answer to urban crime is that Washington is not the only big city where crime has overwhelmed police. In Baltimore last year there were 335 murders and 1,464 other crimes of violence. Dozens of cities have destructive crime rates. It is politically impossible to put guardsmen in them all, even briefly.

Still another reason why Mayor Kelly's idea is a bad one is that most National Guard units are not trained for crime control.

The real crime crisis exists in big cities. What they need are more police officers. Most can't afford them. We wish we could believe the new crime bill now in Congress and touted by President Clinton would do what its supporters say: pay for 50,000 officers to do "community policing." It won't. To subsidize 50,000 cops, the federal government could give localities only $12,000- $14,000 per cop per year. Maybe Sheriff Andy Taylor can hire Barney Fife for that in Mayberry, but the police chiefs of Washington, Baltimore and other urban centers in desperate need of more cops on the beat surely can't do much with it.

Mayor Kelly has done the crime debate a favor by asking for so drastic a solution as military rescue. Maybe this will force Congress -- and governors and state legislatures -- to deal with urban crime with the sense of urgency that is required.

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