Behind the Crime Stats

May 26, 1994

When it comes to crime, Howard County is a victim of its own success. Even one of the worst winters on record could not entirely chill a steady increase in some crimes, particularly car thefts. While the number of serious crimes overall in Howard County declined 10.6 percent in the first quarter of this year, assaults increased 16.4 percent and car thefts climbed from 270 to 286 incidents during the same period.

As one of the fastest-growing counties in Maryland, Howard has crime statistics that are largely keeping pace with the population. Burglaries, attempted burglaries and thefts dropped off during last winter, and police were quick to give thanks to the elements. "It's kind of hard for a burglar to break into your house and carry away a TV in an ice storm," said police spokesman Sgt. Steven Keller. But cold weather can cause mercurial results as well, and an increase in the number of assaults may have been due to tempers flaring in icebound quarters.

Whatever the cause of the recent decline in some categories and the increase in others, crime is still a serious matter in Howard, a situation that is sometimes obscured by the county's polished image as a bedroom community. A recent survey by the county's Mediation and Conflict Resolution Center found that most residents feel they live in one of the safest communities in the state. Some of this may represent a false sense of security that in itself may be at the root of some crime incidents.

Certainly, the high number of car thefts can be linked to residents' feelings of security. Police say most of those thefts, committed by teen-age joy riders, could have been avoided had the vehicles been locked or an alarm system or steering wheel lock been installed. Instead, auto theft is among the most stubborn of local crimes, rising persistently during the past three years. Even the arrest last year of a teen gang linked to up to 20 car thefts in the county failed to stem the tide on this crime. Prevention may be the only cure.

Less clear is the role prevention could play in more heinous crimes. The number of rapes in the county during the last quarter was appallingly high -- seven as opposed to four during the same period in 1993. Counseling potential victims about how not to put themselves in danger will help; so will strict and sure punishment as a strong deterrent.

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