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On the Beat With Boston's Officer John Sacco

TO readers of the South End News, a scrappy little weekly in this Boston neighborhood, Community Officer John Sacco reports from the front lines of crime.

''Boston has been quieting down lately,'' says the burly police veteran of 38 years seated at his desk in Precinct 4. ''Statistics bear it out.''

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Each week for 15 years, Mr. Sacco has written ''Police Beat,'' a widely praised compilation of neighborhood crime rendered in a Saccosian style, which denounces ''scoundrels, culprits,'' and pernicious sellers of ''green herbs.'' Local newspapers and magazines call him the ''best cop-columnist in the country.''

Total crime in Boston has been on a five year decline, Sacco says, and violent crime is down two years in a row. Neighborhoods and communities are becoming activated, Sacco says, when the good guys start to take back the streets from the bad guys.

''You can saturate areas with cops, and the dealers just go somewhere else,'' he says. ''But when communities get involved with neighborhood watches, school programs, strong community groups and individuals stepping forward, a lot can be done. And we have our own anticrime unit that has been hitting hard.''

While in the 1950s, the South End used to shake, rattle, and roll at night in a honky-tonk style, today it is gentrified, Sacco says, with an ethnic mixture of white, black, Asian, and Hispanic. Brownstones are renovated. Cheap hotels have closed. A corridor park meanders where trains used to thunder.

''The drug culture was small back then,'' says Sacco, who was raised in nearby Roxbury. ''We didn't have the viciousness then like crime today. I think it's tougher being poor in an affluent, consumer society. Sell drugs and you can make a lot of money fast to buy the things you see others have.''

But if you're caught, chances are you'll end up in a Sacco column. Here's a sampling from the South End News: ''On Jan. 24, at about 2:30 p.m. a San Juan street man, 19, was sitting in the O'Day playground when he saw what he was waiting for. A van pulled up.... Someone in the van handed him a package. The teen slid the package up his sleeve.... The whole scenario was being watched by Area D Dets. Thornton and Murphy, who conducted a threshold inquiry and found the package was a green herb. The culprit was arrested on the spot.''

Sacco, the son of a milkman and graduate of a vocational high school, started writing the column because he was told to by a precinct officer.

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''I write to tell people these things are happening,'' he says, ''and to let people know the police are doing their jobs.'' Why does he use antiquated words like culprit and scoundrel? ''They are culprits and scoundrels,'' he says, slapping his knee, ''and the cops are right there to grab them.''

He writes on a typewriter, using the one-finger method, pecking out his column in a couple of hours, he says, going a ''mile a minute.''

Sacco's love of history is reflected in his column. He especially loves American history, books about the Roman Empire, and anything James Michner writes. ''If you don't study history,'' he says, ''you'll never understand what is going on today. In the Roman Empire the government tried to control everything centrally. People don't want that today either.''

Another crime sampler from Sacco: ''On Jan. 25, at about 12:06 a.m., special security police ... observed a Roxbury man, 32, behind 85 West Newton St. The man appeared nervous. A threshold inquiry caused him to discard a baggie of rock. He was arrested. He told the officers he's trying to stop drugs and is in a detox program. So far, it's not working.''

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