Putting fear of crime in perspective

April 09, 1995|By Ed Heard and Ivan Penn | Ed Heard and Ivan Penn,Sun Staff Writers

Former Howard County police officer turned security consultant Victor Riemer finds a warm reception these days when he knocks on homeowners' doors to pitch burglar alarms. "The fear of crime is hitting them," he says. "More times than not, they're thankful I showed up."

Howard police officers say such fear is only natural, but a review of county and state crime statistics dating back to 1975 indicates much of this concern may be unfounded:

* While the total number of crimes has increased since 1975, the county's mushrooming population has pushed down the crime rate steadily since 1986. Statewide, the crime rate has risen since 1984.

* In Howard, the wealthiest county in Maryland, residents are more likely to suffer property crimes -- as opposed to violent crimes -- than those living almost anywhere else in the state.

* Juveniles in Howard are committing an increasing number of serious crimes, defined as murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, breaking and entering, larceny and motor vehicle theft. The 1,657 juveniles arrested for serious crimes in 1994 represented a 23 percent increase over 1993.

* Compared with Baltimore City and six other counties in the area -- Anne Arundel, Montgomery, Carroll, Harford, Prince George's and Baltimore -- Howard County's crime rate is third lowest after those of Carroll and Harford.

But Howard's relatively few high-profile, heinous crimes rivet residents' attention, crimes such as the 1992 carjack-killing of Savage research chemist Pam Basu.

"The big ones make people ask questions," says Debbie Ross, a leader of Fighting Chance, a Columbia-based self-defense group for women. Ms. Ross says class rolls swelled after the 1993 killing of 16-year-old Tara A. Gladden, whose body was found in Columbia's Town Center. A Baltimore man has been charged in the killing.

Nevertheless, these headline-grabbing incidents don't prompt good safety practices by residents, Howard police Sgt. Karen Burnett, head of the force's Crime Prevention Section, says.

Residents careless

Some county residents still leave their keys in their cars or the doors of their vehicles, houses and garages unlocked. Howard police Pfc. Darryl Thompson says he sees a lot of unsafe behavior: women jogging alone down dark streets and cyclists using Columbia's wooded bike paths at night.

Last August, nine Columbia youths were arrested in an attack on a boy who was pistol-whipped on a path.

"I see so much [outdoor] activity from those groups who are the most vulnerable," says Officer Thompson, who recently had a burglar alarm installed in his home. "Everybody wants to feel comfortable, but everything's not rational."

Police acknowledged problems on Columbia's pathways last June with new patrols from 1:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Police Chief James Robey said then that the schedule was designed for officers' safety by not putting them on the paths late at night. Officer Roch DeFrances said: "At night you're a target, not a police officer. It can get crazy."

Still, violent attacks are rare in Howard.

The county had four homicides last year. Two were believed to be the result of domestic disputes. The most publicized was the slaying last December of Shirley Harney of Ellicott City. Her estranged husband, who went with their two children to Walt Disney World before he was arrested as a result of the "America's Most Wanted" television show, has been charged in her death.

If you're the victim of a crime in Howard, the vast odds -- a 93.4 percent chance -- are that someone went after your property. Howard's rate of property crimes as a percentage of all crimes was the highest among Baltimore-area jurisdictions, with Baltimore City ranking lowest at 77.6 percent.

"This county is infamous for property crimes," Officer Thompson says. "That's where we get hit the hardest."

Larcenies predominate

Thieves steal anything they can get their hands on: bikes, pets, stray tools, hoses, lawn equipment, hubcaps and even sunglasses, stereos and briefcases left in vehicles.

In 1994, Howard recorded 5,823 larcenies, making up two-thirds of the serious crimes in the county. Last year, police made 1,078 arrests for larceny.

A rash of home burglaries in December 1993 prompted fear among residents of Columbia's Long Reach village. In another string of county burglaries last winter, intruders entered unlocked garages and stole property from the garages or inside homes. Although police believe most of the burglaries were the work of two men now in custody, they said copycat burglars continue to operate.

Residents turn to alarms

These burglaries prompted more county residents to buy alarm systems for their homes, purchases that police say often represent the first response of crime victims. "They know crime's spreading out and it's getting to be everywhere," says Mr. Riemer, the security consultant who left the county police force in December after 10 years. "Some are frightened enough to invest in more of an alarm system than they need."

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