Behind the crime stats High-profile cases shape opinion as much as jumble of numbers.

March 13, 1996

SEPARATE REPORTS in Howard County recently showed increases in serious crime, fewer arrests for such crimes and an overall drop in complaints against the police department. Crime up, satisfaction up, too? What's wrong with this picture? Perhaps nothing. As many statistics as get churned out about crime, the data itself rarely seems to determine public opinion. Often, the belief exists that crime is soaring even in areas where statistics show otherwise, says Katheryn Russel, a criminology professor at the University of Maryland-College Park.

Perceptions about crime and police work often get shaped by high-profile cases, increased exposure to crime news and other factors. Crime may have appeared even worse to Howard County residents in past years that were punctuated by particularly gruesome crimes. Among them: The Interstate 95 shooting near Jessup of state Trooper Ted Wolf in 1990, the 1992 carjacking of Pam Basu, the lengthy search in 1993-1994 for the killer of Columbia teen Tara Gladden and last year's armed robbery of a Scan warehouse in Columbia.

Any increase in serious crimes, such as homicide, rape, assault, burglary, robbery, theft and car theft, is unwelcome news. But that number is undoubtedly going to increase alongside the growth of the county and the aging of its "baby boomlet" kids into adolescents.

Still, a mostly suburban jurisdiction such as Howard typically has less homicides in a year than Baltimore suffers in a week. The average suburbanite views crime as mainly a city ill and probably doesn't think twice about leaving his home at night.

Two statistics worth noting about the Howard police last year were a 6 percent decrease in arrests for serious crimes and, on a more positive note, fewer complaints against the department. The statistics again, however, probably don't solidify perceptions as much as some high-profile incidents: the recent conviction of former police Sgt. Thomas Martin on second-degree sex assault charges; the ill-conceived massage parlor probe, and two pending multi-million dollar federal lawsuits, one of them alleging excessive force.

Those reports may have startled Howard countians even more than the fact that the crime rate continued its inexorable rise.

Pub Date: 3/13/96

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