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Rural America strives to cope with a spiraling crime rate

As the citizens of Great Bend, Kan., were waiting out the winter last January , someone robbed a pair of liquor stores in town.

That in itself would not be particularly notable - liquor stores are common targets of robbers -- but for two factors. Whoever committed the robberies, after taking what money was in the stores at the time, also killed the attendants -- apparently to eliminate witnesses. Second, the town of some 20,000 people, in a rural section of the state, has been deeply shaken by the incident. The lingering concern is that the guilty party might be a local resident -- and might strike again. Last week, a visiting reporter sent to follow up on the story found only one person in town willing to be quoted by name, and that person later decided he didn't want to be identified either. Those who would talk at all indicated they now were locking their houses and cars whenever they went out. And handgun sales had risen dramatically, mostly to other store owners.

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The Great Bend incidents demonstrate the impact that the spiraling crime rate -- from murder to the vandalism of campsites whose occupants are off hiking for the day - is having even on rural America. Far from the impersonal concrete canyons of the major cities, some people are finding it increasingly difficult to feel safe in the countryside.

Efforts are under way, however, to cope with the problem before it gets out of hand. Some already have achieved a measure of success.

Rural people, says Joseph Donnermeyer, acting director of the Center for the Study of Rural Crime at Ohio State University, ''have a lower tolerance of crime'' than do their urban brethren.

That tolerance is being strained to an ever-greater degree as urban sprawl moves outward, as more and more family farms fail, as people from the cities move to or build vacation retreats in the countryside, and -- in the case of some Western states -- as oil, coal, and natural gas are sought in previously unsettled areas.

Moreover, those who study the problem say, the influx of newcomers into rural areas, where nearly all the local people previously knew each other, is happening simultaneously with a breakdown in the cohesiveness of the family unit. That cohesiveness has long been a source of pride in rural society. But it is coming under increasing strain due to the influence of peer pressure, particularly among younger people, who commit the majority of crimes.

According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports for 1979 and 1980, the latest year for which statistics are available, the number of offenses known to police in rural areas rose from 654,454 to 726,588 -- an 11 percent difference. By far, the greater number of these were property crimes (burglary, larceny theft, motor vehicle theft, and the like), but crimes against the person (murder, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) also rose by 3.8 percent over the two-year span.

But the FBI and others interested in the matter stress that an equally large number of crimes in rural areas probably are never reported. In all, the Center for the Study of Rural Crime maintains that the rate of increase over the last 20 years is 550 percent. (The existence of the center itself is a response to the growth of crime in rural America; it was established only two years ago.)

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The problem often is exacerbated by the fact that rural law enforcement is stretched thin, with too few officers and other resources to patrol too great an area. More than a few rural counties in the US have only one or two cruisers available and hundreds of square miles to cover.

A recent poll of county sheriffs in northern New England found some were embarrassed to admit that -- in responding to break-ins of vacant summer homes, a growing phenomenon -- they were reduced to chasing snowmobile-equipped thieves by patrol car. The cars not only can't travel cross-country, as the snowmobiles can, but they also don't function well when the snowfall is heavy.

Local justice, too, is sometimes hindered by rural attitudes and codes of behavior, which can be as forbidding as those of the inner city. Police in rural northwestern Missouri have found residents of a small town unwilling to come forward with information on the vigilante-style execution last summer of a man who had long terrorized the area, even though several reportedly had witnessed it. The FBI has joined other agencies probing the matter, which has attracted national attention.

''The ability of local law enforcement and the prosecutors to do an effective job is predicated upon the quality of the witnesses, or the willingness of people to call crime in and to cooperate with law enforcement. And in that area there's a real need for education,'' says Dr. Donnermeyer. ''People don't see the system doing its job, regardless of whether it is or not.''

''Generally speaking,'' he says, ''rural crimes are committed by people who are residents of that particular area. A vast majority are the result of permissiveness. If there weren't the opportunity, if the door weren't unlocked, the crime would not occur.''

Donnermeyer does not subscribe to the popular theory that much of rural crime is attributable to the poverty of those who commit it. ''There's not a heck of a lot of an income correlation to crime,'' he says. ''Drug-usage rates (in rural areas) aren't all that much lower than for urban youth. In essence, we find that the motivation is not economic, but for kicks. It's a status-seeking activity.''

Adds Dr. Kenneth Wilkinson, a rural sociologist at the Pennsylvania State University: ''We're getting, on one hand, a reduction in socio-economic deprivation, which should work against an increase of crime. (But) we're getting a second (factor) -- a larger proportion of young adult males than formerly in rural areas. Fewer of the rural residents in that age category are migrating to the large cities. And young adults are much more susceptible to crimes, as offenders or victims, than most other categories of people.''

The Ohio State unit is working with the US Department of Agriculture, with cooperative local extension services, and with other groups to help prevent the further spread of rural crime. It is developing and distributing educational materials on livestock identification, on securing pumps against fuel thefts, on ''bolted door'' security, and on alarm systems, all tailored to rural settings.

Still another means of combating rural crime is networks of citizens-band (CB) radio users who assist county sheriffs and local police by patrolling roads and reporting on suspicious behavior. Donnermeyer says these groups work ''mainly because they run their own programs; the police are (only) in an advisory status. A lot like churches in rural areas, this has turned into a social function for them.''

CB networks in rural Ohio, Donnermeyer says, have helped account for a 50 percent reduction in crime in the five years since the first of them was formed. One sheriff of a 400-square-mile county claims to have an effective group of 200 private citizens who help him in crime prevention.

Louis Ploch, a sociologist at the University of Maine, says that there is much newcomers to rural areas can do to help stave off the attitudes that breed crime. Such people, especially younger professionals, tend to revive traditional rural values, like a love of music in the home, wholesome literature, or staging amateur plays in Grange halls, he says.

Dr. Ploch also says he knows of at least 12 newspapers in rural Maine that have been started in recent years by newcomers. Featuring strictly local news and advertising -- and often photographs - they ''tend to be community synthesizing forces,'' he adds.

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