Fighting Crime -- and Perceptions

June 02, 1995

Proportionally, police say, fewer crimes are committed in Howard County than any jurisdiction in the Baltimore area. But that fact and other information that would give Howard high marks for safety seem to do little to dispel residents' fears of being victimized. For a number of reasons -- some valid, some not -- the fear of crime remains a principal distraction for many residents, particularly in Columbia.

A recent spate of crimes involving weapons in Columbia has caused alarm. Just one morning's headlines recently were enough to make a Columbian rethink his security: "Purse snatcher injures woman's arm," "Armed man robs convenience store," "Man charged in carjacking at grocery store." But without in any way minimizing the legitimate concerns of those victimized, it is clear that residents are not in substantially greater risk than residents of comparable communities.

Yes, Columbia is more urban than the rest of Howard, with a diverse socio-economic population. Densely populated as it is, there are more opportunities for crime. But considering the county's burgeoning population, the chance of being victimized has actually decreased in recent years.

Also, the common perception that some villages in Columbia are more crime-ridden than others is a fallacy. Police records of calls for service, when broken down by village, show virtually no difference. Unfortunately, police statistics are not broken down such that Columbia can be compared with other parts of the county. Officials have resisted singling out Columbia for fear of dividing it from the rest of Howard, says County Executive Charles I. Ecker. But a consequence of this policy may be to inadvertently fuel suspicion that crime is more rampant there. We recommend a more systematic examination to shed light on the situation.

If it is any consolation, similar reports about the perception of crime outweighing the statistics have come out of nearly every jurisdiction. Indeed, it seems our national preoccupation. For a variety of reasons -- the prevalence of guns, graphic accounts in the news and entertainment media -- Americans feel more threatened. Residents of suburban areas may have to take greater precautions than they were previously accustomed to taking, such as locking homes and cars. But fears of a place under siege don't match reality.

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