Crime, fear and politics

March 02, 1994

In the 1990 and '92 elections, the economy was the hot topic. This time, it's crime. At the national and local levels, polls show that crime has outstripped the economy as the issue people care most about.

So it is fitting and proper that local candidates are talking about corrections policies, the death penalty, gun control and better law enforcement. Voters should welcome lively debates such as last week's peppery confrontation in Crofton between Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank Weathersbee and Republican challenger John Greiber.

At the same time, voters should treat the fevered rhetoric that is headed their way with a strong dose of reason. Politicians see value in pandering to the fear of crime. It pays to jump on the anti-crime bandwagon, even in relatively safe rural areas where one or two homicides a year is a lot.

In more urban Anne Arundel County, crime is more serious. There were 17 homicides last year, seven more than in 1992. The number of rapes rose by 11 to 110, and aggravated assaults jumped by 145 to 1,006.

Still, the fearful atmosphere that now permeates the county is less a function of the numbers -- overall, serious crimes declined by 1.2 percent -- than that a handful of last year's crimes were high-profile, gruesome and random -- the murder of a college student in a Severna Park doughnut shop over his pen, for instance. This atmosphere lends itself to exploitation by political hopefuls casting themselves as would-be Clint Eastwoods. It is easy to talk tough about crime when that is what people want to hear -- easy, but not always responsible.

In Anne Arundel County, as in most Baltimore suburbs, the perception of rampant crime is greater than the reality. Most of those 1,006 aggravated assaults involved relatively minor incidents, police say. Headlines that proclaim an overall 4 percent crime increase are misleading; the soaring crimes are liquor violations, gambling and disorderly conduct -- infractions that should be taken seriously, but hardly the stuff of nightmares.

No, things are not as safe, even in the suburbs, as they used to be. Concerns about crime are real, and any candidate who does not recognize that doesn't deserve a vote.

But the fear is not a measure of the reality. And, any candidate who does not recognize that likely has a selfish reason for not doing so.

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