Tackling America’s Malignant Crime

Tackling America’s Malignant Crime


The Editor’s Opinion Page

According to the American Mutual Insurance Companies the arson bill for property loss during 1976 exceeded $2 billion. And the arson bill for human suffering which cannot be measured in dollars ran to about 1000 persons killed and another 10,000 injured.

What is even more frightening is the fact that the incidence of arson is constantly increasing. In the State of Massachusetts the increase was more than 300 percent in the past decade. The City of San Francisco had a 900 percent increase in the last 15 years. Nationwide, arson has been growing at this same pace—estimated at nearly 500 percent for the years 1964 to 1975. And arson for fraud is increasing more rapidly than any other type of arson fire.

The reason for this increase is quite simple. Arson for fraud is quite profitable and has little risk. Less than 2 percent of all suspected arson cases result in convictions. On top of this, about 50 percent of fires listed as “cause unknown” could be placed in the arson class—if there were proper reporting and better investigation. And that’s where the problem begins: reporting and investigation.

In a study done by the United States Department of Justice, it was found that “fire departments often look on incendiary and arson investigations as a specialty that they are not trained for and a diversion from their main duty of fire fighting. In addition, it has the nature of law enforcement work which many firemen prefer to avoid .. .

The police, on the other hand, “recognize that the fire department is nearly always responsible for determining the cause of fires, and therefore that it, rather than the police department, must make the initial investigation of every fire incident. . .”

But from here on, things get a little sticky. Fire experts hold that detection and prosecution falls within the province of a fire department. The police say no to this, claiming that criminal investigation (after arson has been identified) is their job. As a consequence of these conflicting attitudes, responsibilities are unclear, the commitment of the two services is reduced and arson enforcement suffers.

A further consequence of this lack of cooperation between the services is that “city fathers” give arson investigation a low priority when it comes to providing funds for manpower and training in this battle against America’s “malignant crime.” Yet these same officials will bemoan the lack of data on arson, unaware of the fact that this lack of data can only be overcome by trained men who can provide “proper reporting and better investigation.”

So it would seem then that to overcome the arsonists, we must have an infusion of money plus better cooperation between the police and fire departments. The latter can be accomplished as it has in some cities by the establishment of arson task forces comprised of policemen and firemen.

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