Crime and Fear in Baltimore County

December 11, 1992

For Baltimore County police chief Cornelius Behan, the recen rash of violent crime in his jurisdiction has proved doubly frustrating.

The crimes themselves -- the double murders at the Randallstown bank and the Catonsville barber shop, the killing of a mall employee and the kidnapping of an off-duty police officer in Owings Mills -- are cause enough for grief and anger.

But Chief Behan must also deal with the resultant backlash of fear from respectable citizens, especially county residents who have believed that some magic, invisible barrier around the jurisdiction protects them from the sort of criminal activity plaguing their city counterparts.

What mostly worries the chief, a nationally known advocate of gun control, is that this fear will make people want to buy guns for self-protection.

"Look, it's a damn lie that if you have a gun, you're protected," he says. "The truth is, if you have a gun in your home, it's more likely it will be stolen and added to the illegal arsenal already on the streets. Or your kids will accidentally hurt themselves while playing with it. Or family members will use it to shoot each other in a heated moment."

Residents of the increasingly urbanized sections of the county -- in particular, the areas within and just beyond the beltway -- have legitimate reason to be concerned about crime, the chief concedes. Yet, he adds, some perspective is needed to keep folks from getting too jittery.

Violent crime in the county did rise during the first nine months of 1992, but minimally -- by around 1 percent compared to the same period in 1991. Citizens can help to bring that figure down, Chief Behan says, by developing common-sense habits that discourage bad guys, such as lighting home exteriors at night, taking car keys after parking, joining the Neighborhood Watch ,, program.

For his part, the chief plans to go once more before the General Assembly in Annapolis and urge a statewide ban on assault weapons. In addition, he expects he will have to plead again with the county government in Towson to spare further budget cuts for his already understaffed and overworked police department.

Such a pitch, however, could fall flat with the economy remaining stagnant, the county government facing a $31 million deficit and public education still a higher priority among citizens than public safety.

Frustrating days indeed, for crime fighters as well as for crime victims.

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