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IT’S AN AWFULLY macabre story to have become an overnight folk legend to the people of Dallas, who pride themselves on being the epitome of social refinement and grace. But then the sanguinary nature of the tale and it’s widespread popularity throughout the North Dallas rumor mill underscore just how desperately afraid people are over the growing threat of crime in their homes.

The little saga deals with a woman and her trusty Doberman pinscher -a muscular, malevolent mountain of coal black dog flesh that spends its days pacing back and forth among the Waterford lamps and the Chippendale settees in the living room, while the woman’s husband, a dentist, is away at the office. Each time the doorbell rings or a strange noise is heard, the dog explodes into a deep-pitched rage sufficiently brutal to scare everyone, including the dog’s mistress. But if it has been somewhat frightening to the woman to have a lethal pet, it has also been somewhat comforting, because the woman has never felt completely safe in her home, knowing that her neighbors have been burglarized numerous times and that the burglar alarms and other protective measures available did little to stop the determined professional thief. In its own peculiar way, it gave the woman a sense of security each time she came home and opened the door, knowing she would have to go through a ritual of calming down a barking, frenzied animal that was certainly not far from a wolf or a jackal on the evolutionary scale.

It was because the woman was so used to the uproar that occurred whenever she put her key in the door that she was frightened by the silence that greeted her one day as she returned from a midday shopping trip. No barking. No dog.

When the woman searched the house, she found the beast on the kitchen floor, writhing with agony and convulsions. The dog looked as if it were at death’s door. The once fierce animal had been humbled by some unknown ailment. It looked like an overgrown puppy that was deathly sick.

The woman wasted little time. She began half dragging and half carrying its massive body (it weights almost as much as its owner) toward the family car. She rushed it to a veterinary hospital. After the doctor examined the dog, he remained puzzled; the Doberman seemed to have some type of respiratory blockage, but the doctor couldn’t tell what. He’d have to keep the dog for observation, and he just couldn’t say yet whether the Doberman would pull through. So the woman left her dog and drove home.

When she got to her house, the phone was ringing. It was the vet.

“I want you to listen very carefully,” he said. “Drop what you are doing, get in your car, and get down here as quickly as you can. Don’t bother to turn off the television set or find your purse. Get down here.”

The woman did exactly as the doctor had instructed.

When she arrived, the doctor explained that the dog was perfectly all right, but that she was quite lucky that she was, too. Her dog had simply been choking on something.

Three human fingers.

The veterinarian had called the police as soon as he had determined what was in the dog’s throat. They had arrived shortly after the woman had left on her second trip to the animal clinic. The officers found a man huddled in the woman’s bedroom closet, clutching a bleeding stump that at the beginning of the day had been his hand. The Doberman had obviously taken its job very seriously. The man hiding in the closet, of course, had been doing his job, too. He was a professional burglar.

The Doberman is now a folk hero with homeowners throughout the city because the animal represents the embodiment of the outrage people feel toward a silent enemy they can’t see and, for the most part, they can’t stop: the burglar.

But despite the popularity of stories like the one I’ve just related, isolated incidents of violence toward the perceived “enemy,” ripping off a man’s fingers or shooting someone as he enters one’s home, are certainly not the answer to the problem. They’re only vicarious catharses.

The real answer is much more mundane, less emotionally cleansing than striking out with a symbolic Smith & Wesson or a flesh-hungry watchdog. The answer is that classic old cliche, community involvement. The words sound boring from overuse, but they represent the only way we can do something to make our homes safe again.

And it is refreshing to see that this basic truth has been taken up by the Dallas City Council, which has made crime its number one priority for the coming year. City Councilman Rolan Tucker, whose North Dallas council district is the prime target of the burglars’ craft, is pursuing a program that had dramatic results in San Diego. It involves having people simply watch each other. Under the program Tucker is advocating, neighbors should be nosy and organized, and quick to call the authorities when they see suspicious activity in their immediate environs. It has been the people, not the police, who have begun to whip the crime problem in San Diego. In the two years since a neighborhood program was initiated in San Diego, the burglary rate has been cut by more than 30 per cent. During that same time period, the burglary rate has risen in Dallas by 13.9 per cent. (San Diego has almost the exact same number of policemen per capita as Dallas.)

The secret is organization. More than 2000 neighborhood groups have organized in San Diego, with neighbors assigning themselves “beats” to watch in their neighborhoods during specific time periods. License numbers of strange cars are written down. Police are called when suspicious activity occurs. Signs are posted with a special logo (Boris the Burglar) with the inscription “Criminal Beware, You are Being Watched. Community Alert Neighborhood.” That may sound like a PR gimmick, but it works. Community Alert Neighborhoods in San Diego have a lower crime rate than non-participating neighborhoods.

Ironically, San Diego got its idea from acity to the east: Dallas. We had the basicsof a similar program here in Dallas severalyears ago, but it died on the vine. Apathyprevailed and the burglars won. Councilman Tucker believes it died because ourprogram was run by the police departmentand not the people. This time, he vows, itwill be different. Tucker wants the city tounite the few existing watch groups inDallas (an active group watches theMidway-Northaven area) and coordinatea city-wide organization of neighborhoodorganizations. Of course, a system usingnosy neighbors is not going to wipe outcrime overnight. But as Tucker says, “Thecrime problem in Dallas must be tackledlike a sculptor tackles a huge block ofgranite: one chip at a time.”

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