Police patrols the right idea

Published 7:51 am Monday, February 16, 2004

By By now just about everyone in the country has become familiar with the likeness of Joseph P. Smith, the twisted individual who's been charged with the murder of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia, a Sarasota, FL girl he abducted earlier this month while she was walking home from a slumber party.
The tattooed mechanic's face -- captured when his mugshot was taken by police after one of his multiple earlier offenses -- has been plastered all over evening news broadcasts since his arrest. There, set in the upper left-hand corner of our television sets, that mugshot has provided us nightly with some of the best proof yet that no matter how we try to convince ourselves otherwise, monsters really do exist.
We in south Alabama, along with the rest of the nation, were witness to the drama surrounding young Carlie's abduction and murder almost from the time she was taken. The massive media coverage that made that possible was fed largely by what was perhaps the case's most chilling element -- the existence of a video tape which shows Smith in the act of taking the 11--year--old by the arm and leading her away to her death.
The tape, taken from the surveillance camera of a carwash Carlie was walking past when she was abducted, provides a heartbreaking several seconds of footage. It shows just how easily a child, even one approaching young adulthood, can be set upon and overpowered by an adult who means them harm.
The images this case has burned into our minds -- the hideous mugshot, the terrifying bits of footage -- have no doubt been especially vivid for parents, who must spend a good deal of their time keeping up with the whereabouts and safety of their kids. Without question, parents here and elsewhere have found it difficult to watch and listen to reports of the Carlie Brucia case without being reminded of just how vulnerable all children are -- and without being reminded that no matter how they try, they can't watch their kids every moment of every day.
These sorts of thoughts were almost certainly on the minds of at least some of the men and women who attended last Tuesday's Brewton City Council meeting, with the intention of questioning the city's role in helping to keep an eye on the community's young ones. And no one can blame them if that was the case.
Accompanying them was Diana Rouser, with the Alabama Democratic Council, who took the floor near the end of the meeting to ask the mayor and council about the police department's efforts to patrol routes kids use to walk home from school in the Sowell Road and East Jackson Street areas. Rouser said that the department was not doing all it should, and Mayor Ted Jennings maintained that, to his knowledge, the patrols were being carried out as planned, although he pointed out that accident calls and other emergencies sometimes pull police units away from the effort.
The exchange between Rouser and Jennings became heated for a few moments, but that wasn't as much about anything said that evening as it was about the passions that come to the surface whenever kids' safety is the issue, especially in light of the Brucia case and other recent tragedies.
And certainly the brief, sharp exchange shouldn't be allowed to cloud this issue. The city's efforts to patrol the routes children take home from school -- be they in the Sowell Road/East Jackson area or elsewhere -- are no doubt appreciated by parents. But, that being said, the practice is one of great enough importance that it should be periodically put under the microscope and reviewed in detail. And if patrols are found to be lacking, the mayor and council should take steps to correct the situation.
The police department does not have enough officers or vehicles to adequately canvass every inch of road kids are using to get home from school. And kids being kids, they no doubt find their own roundabouts and shortcuts here and there which take them away from the protection of patrolling units.
But police visibility can be a powerful deterrent in the face of all kinds of crime, including those committed against children. A predator is less inclined to go after a child in a place where he knows he's likely to run into a police officer or other concerned adult.
Creating that likelihood in the minds of potential child predators is something police patrols in these areas can and should do. Such preventive measures can head off potential tragedy -- the sort there's no real recovering from for those involved.

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