Little Petaluma, Big Baltimore

December 08, 1993

The tragedy in Petaluma, Cal., struck a nerve all across America -- indeed, the world. Twelve-year-old Polly Klaas was abducted from her home by a kidnapper on parole and murdered. It is every parent's sometime nightmare. Every suburban parent's. In many neighborhoods in big cities, many parents have bad dreams every night about getting their children through the next day without being shot, knifed or otherwise harmed by criminals.

We say that not to belittle or diminish the grief in Petaluma about this hideous crime. We just want to remind people that the real crime problem -- the greatest amount in grief -- is not in the Petalumas of America but the Baltimores. A slum parent's grief is just as great as any parent's, and a slum child is far more likely to be harmed or killed by a criminal than a child anywhere else.

This week the FBI reported that Baltimore has become the fifth most dangerous city in the nation. That characterization is based on the murder rate for the first six months of the year. It comes as no surprise that all of the cities at the top of the murder chart are mid-sized to large. This report follows by a few days an FBI report that showed crime overall declined in the nation for the first half of the year: violent crime by 3 percent and property crime by 5 percent. Is that good news? No. Even if it could be taken at face value -- that crime is going down -- the level is still far higher than 10, 20 or 30 years ago.

And in fact there is reason not to take the FBI statistics at face value. There is reason to disbelieve them. The FBI uses figures reported to it by local police departments. The president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police says many departments are pressured by community leaders to under-report. In addition to that, in some city neighborhoods, victims of crimes no longer report them to police, out of fear or hopeless frustration.

Petaluma is in some ways typical of small exurban communities near large cities. In 1992, it reported 201 crimes of violence to the FBI. Nearby San Francisco, which has a population about 17 times as great, reported 13,676, or over 60 times as many. Baltimore, also with about 17 times as many residents, reported 21,799, or just over 100 times as many!

The horrible murder of Polly Klaas was reported and mourned worldwide. It is a reminder to all Americans that a random crime of violence can occur anywhere. It should also remind Americans of the widespread pain and suffering afflicting parents and children in those areas where crimes of violence involving young victims are so routine as to be newsworthy only in their local communities -- and sometimes not even there.

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