Chief Robey's Prime Time Debacle

April 13, 1995

The latest crime statistics help to betray the fact that the public's fear of crime in Howard County exceeds the reality. While the total number of crimes committed in Howard has increased, the crime rate has gone down in light of the county's growing population. The result has been that the chance of being a victim of crime in Howard -- particularly violent crime -- is less than almost anywhere else in suburban Maryland.

We don't mean to diminish people's fears, however, which are illustrated by the increasing number of residents installing home alarm systems and enrolling in self-defense classes. The raw crime data doesn't shape opinion as much as the occasional high-profile crime that becomes imprinted on the public consciousness.

Howard County has seen more than its share of horrendous crimes: The murder of Trooper Ted Wolf during a routine car stop along Interstate 95 near Jessup five years ago; the 1992 carjacking of Pam Basu; the slaying of teen-ager Tara Gladden of Columbia; the recent arrest of Daniel Harney for the murder of his estranged wife in Ellicott City the day after Christmas.

Elected officials exacerbate matters when they exploit the fear of crime for political gain. So do police union officials when they manipulate statistics to build support during contract negotiations.

Public confidence was further eroded last week by Howard Police Chief James Robey's alarming performance in a segment of ABC-TV's "Primetime Live" newsmagazine show. Chief Robey's response to questions about the police department's handling of a 1992 rape investigation was outrageously insensitive.

Police never believed the account of the incident by the victim, a teen-ager who was abducted and driven to the rapist's home. She was asked to take a polygraph test, and failed. It was only later and by chance that her assailant was caught using similar tactics and her story confirmed.

When asked by a television reporter whether he would respond differently in hindsight, Chief Robey demonstrated that he had learned nothing from the incident: He said unflinchingly he would still rely on the lie-detector test examiner over a resident reporting a crime.

We wonder if Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, to whom Mr. Robey reports, was shaking his head over the chief's nationwide performance, as were many other county residents who saw the program.

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