Another kind of warning for vigilante behavior

A policeman's vocalized dream: "If everybody was that responsive, this would be a hell of a safe city."

The comment was made about the crooks-beware full assault that the Waldo area has orchestrated in reply to a serial rapist.

For a while, I bit at the possibilities as well. Many people have lately. The idea of spreading Waldo's not-on-our-watch commitment is what community policing is based upon. But sometimes these conversations about harnessing the citizen awareness lead to mistaken pronouncements about race and class.

There is some truth that middle-class status can give people the latitude to take on roles of outrage in ways that violent crimes in the central city never seem to engender. At least not past family grief, prayer vigils and door-to-door canvassing by anti-crime outreach teams. But it's a stretch to extrapolate that the no-snitching mentality stifling so many murder investigations could be altered so easily.

At best, this is a convenient train of thought that dismisses a reality of crime.

It's not so much that Waldo is the right neighborhood for such a response, rather, rape is the right crime.

Rapes and assaults on children. No other crimes bond communities quite so fervently. This was wisely pointed out by East Patrol Division commander Maj. Anthony Ell. The fear and sometimes apathy that keep people from cooperating with police dissolve when children are involved, he said.

Even to a point of dangerous vigilante behavior.

In fact, the judgment of the man, who thought wrongly that he was in a car chase with the Waldo rapist and ended up getting shot at, pales in comparison with a past episode.

In the fall of 1991, Kansas City's urban core was terrorized by a man who snatched little girls from bus stops. He'd molest them for hours, then let them go. Men formed patrols cruising streets, others stood guard at stops, and fliers circulated with the suspect's description: black male, box haircut.

After about a month, a fourth little girl, 6, was grabbed walking to school with her brother. Police, residents, taxi drivers, city workers, even a tourist trolley bus, scoured the streets.

Not surprisingly, a classic and painful case of mistaken identity soon followed.

An innocent man was dragged from his car, punched, kicked and held in a chokehold. He broke free, was recaptured and held down for a second beating, with more people piling on.

The mob checked his car. No child. And really, he didn't fit the description very well, nor did his car.

Eventually, a correctly handled phoned tip led to the real criminal and his life sentence.

But remember this: Two of the innocent man's assailants ended up getting prosecuted, too.

Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at msanchez

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