Crime vs. reality

February 08, 1993

When crime levels blip upward, governments often respond by hiring more police officers. It's the kind of step that can curtail crime. Perhaps more significantly, it soothes the public fear that the streets, parking lots and malls are no longer safe.

Hiring cops is an option in a strong economy. However, when money's tight, as it is now, what's a government to do? In Baltimore County, where the perception of crime seems to have dwarfed the reality of it, County Executive Roger Hayden is turning to various low-cost and even no-cost methods to curtail criminal activity in his subdivision. They include boosting the roles of sworn, retired and auxiliary police officers; developing crime prevention programs within communities, and privatizing the long-stalled DWI Treatment Facility.

But the main intent of the crime-fighting initiatives announced last week by Mr. Hayden apparently is to calm county residents who fret that their suburban paradise is fast becoming an extension of Baltimore City.

No question, crime is up in the county. The numbers, though, don't justify the terror that has overcome some folks. According to the county police department, violent crimes and property crimes have risen only slightly in recent years. A record number of homicides was recorded in 1992, but officials view the figure -- 45 -- as an aberration. Police Chief Cornelius Behan points out that the county's murder rate is still well below those of the city, the state and the nation.

Any item for the police blotter is, of course, one too many. Yet crime is an inescapable fact of life in all but the most remote burgs of America. It's especially hard to avoid in an increasingly urban area such as Baltimore County, and especially hard to accept for people who have imagined the subdivision as a haven from urban ills. Small wonder many countians are moving away, or thinking about it, or at least proclaiming their fears of mounting mayhem to pols and radio talkmeisters.

To his credit, Mr. Hayden took heed and acted to ease the anxiety. Doing so, he risks heightening the sense of worry by calling attention to crime. But the greater risk -- to his political survival as well as to the mental well-being of the county -- would have been to dismiss the rumblings and claim his hands were tied by budget constraints.

In this instance, the county executive showed he understands that fighting the perception of a problem can be as important as fighting the problem itself. Maybe more so.

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