Between the lines of Salt Lake-area crime statistics is the story of illegal drugs and the denial by residents that they can become crime victims.

Emerging problems with drive-by shootings and other violent acts are linked to the growing presence of organized youth gangs. The gang problem spills into an ever-present illegal drug problem where users commit crimes to support addiction.And caught in the cross fire are residents who leave their cars and houses unlocked because they falsely believe that crime breeds only in the inner city and that they are "safe in the suburbs."

Area police chiefs say their officers will remain at the front lines of crime-prevention efforts but concede that crime figures will continue to grow as the population swells unless the community becomes more involved.

"The statistics seem pretty frightening but the number of people who are victims is still pretty small," said West Valley Police Chief Dennis Nordfelt. And unless someone becomes a victim, they don't realize all of the factors that contribute to drug abuse and related criminal activity. "My epitaph will probably read: `Drugs and gangs are not a police problem, they're a social problem,' " he said.

There wasn't a single robbery and only four cars were stolen in South Jordan in 1989, and yet the semirural pocket in suburbia is becoming a favorite target among transient youth gangs that are smart enough to know they can steal more in a richer neighborhood than in a poorer one, said South Jordan Police Chief Duane Sutherland.

The parking lot of the LDS Jordan River Temple in South Jordan is a favorite spot for vehicle burglars whose victims often leave purses and other valuables in plain sight inside their unlocked car. Gang members also go house-to-house asking for a fictitious neighbor or making some other excuse when someone goes to the door. But when no one answers, they break the door down and grab whatever valuables they can spot.

The same situation exists in Sandy, where the police department finally sent officers knocking on people's doors this summer - even in the middle of the night - to tell residents to close their garage doors to prevent burglaries. "Some people were upset about being awakened, but we were received well overall," said Police Chief Gary Leonard.

And no agency patrols more of Salt Lake suburbia than the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Department. "You can't leave cars or houses open anywhere any more," said Sheriff Pete Hayward. "We still don't see the tremendous high-crime areas like there are elsewhere, and our priority is making sure it doesn't get that way. We want to take the opportunities for crimes away."

"Drugs are the number one problem in all criminal activity" and in a number of family and workplace problems, Hayward said.

Sandy's police chief came to Utah from Alexandria, Va., where he had 15 to 20 officers on each shift assigned to break up open-air drug markets. "I didn't expect to see that here," he said, and he hasn't. "But this area is big on methamphetamines and the quantity of cocaine is growing by leaps and bounds."

The tie criminal activity has to illegal drugs is demonstrated by national statistics that show 50 percent to 70 percent of all convicted felons test positive for drug use, Leonard said.

Illegal drug trafficking is like an iceberg in that only about 20 percent of illegal narcotics surface and are interdicted by police. The other 80 percent comes and goes unnoticed and is being used by so-called casual or recreational users who may not be committing crimes but who contribute significantly to the drug trafficking problem.

Some of those casual users who abused drugs in the 1960s and 1970s are now the parents of the 1990s: A youth arrested for cocaine possession recently told officers he and his father used cocaine together, Sutherland said. "We run into a lot of situations like that."

Police are focusing on educating school children about the dangers of drug abuse and are trying to involve community and church groups to promote the formation of neighborhood watch programs and teach individuals how to avoid becoming crime victims.

Leonard said he is using his overtime budget and money from the PTA to put officers in two elementary schools where they teach children about illegal drugs and the "gateway" drugs - alcohol and tobacco.

Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County and other cities in the valley are also using uniformed officers in the schools in a drug prevention program called "DARE" aimed at sixth-graders.

"Our education program is as important as law enforcement," Sutherland said, adding that it is sometimes the longtime residents of the area who resist crime prevention efforts most vigorously.

Leonard said neighborhood watch programs work very well as long as they get the attention they need from the police department to keep them active. Police contact with neighborhood watch "captains" about suspicious circumstances or trends is just as important as the neighbors' contacts with police.

Finding alternate ways for youths to express themselves, whether through Boy Scouts, boys clubs, athletics or church programs, helps youngsters get the attention they need without turning to drugs, crime or gangs, Leonard said. "The important thing is finding ways for them to express themselves" without turning to violence.