15 officers assigned to fight Columbia crime Howard police focus efforts on 3 villages

July 23, 1996|By Erica C. Harrington | Erica C. Harrington,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Alex Gordon contributed to this article.

Concerned about a wave of robberies in three Columbia villages, Howard County police have assigned 15 uniformed and plainclothes officers to patrol them for the next 10 weeks in a program that could be used elsewhere in the county.

The Robbery Suppression Program -- which began with no fanfare Thursday -- concentrates on the villages of Long Reach, Oakland Mills and Town Center, all of which "are historically busier with robberies," said Sgt. Steven Keller.

Led by Lt. William McMahon, commander of the department's special operations division, the program will combine the efforts of detectives and narcotics officers, along with the regular patrol, to find possible connections between the robberies and other types of crimes.

The department will also pursue people who have outstanding warrants for their arrests.

"Any time we see a pattern, we want to respond," said McMahon. "It's mostly street-level robberies in Columbia, but if something happens elsewhere, we'll move people."

In addition, the department will work with community leaders and residents to compile reports on suspicious people and to keep residents from becoming crime victims, said Sgt. Morris Carroll, supervisor of the department's community services section.

Though many community leaders were unaware of the robbery suppression program yesterday, those who were told about it said the effort is likely to decrease the number of robberies in their neighborhoods.

"Any time you have police presence, there's a decrease in crime," said Wanda Hurt, chairwoman of the Columbia Council's public safety committee.

Police will hold a meeting with residents at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Long Reach Church of God.

Although police do not track crime by village, the pace of robbery countywide was up in the first five months of this year, said Keller. From January to May, police received 116 robberies complaints -- compared with 84 complaints in the entire first half of 1995, he said.

The three-village robbery-prevention program comes on the heels of a number of armed robberies in the affected communities, including a July 12 incident in Oakland Mills in which a driver was shot during a robbery at the Pizz-A-Boli's restaurant on Oakland Mills Road.

And over the weekend, two armed men robbed a jewelry store at The Mall in Columbia.

Ali Bahtti, manager of the Pizz-A-Boli's robbed this month, said a police presence should help protect his drivers. He said business has dropped since the recent robbery.

"I want more police late at night to protect the drivers," he said. "That is helpful if they are policing this area."

Sarah Uphouse, the Long Reach village manager, said she has noticed an increase in crime throughout Columbia and a change in people's behavior as a result.

"Before, I would get complaints about how bright the lights were [around the village center], and now they're not bright enough," she said. "Columbia is changing from a suburban to an urban area."

Joe Merke, Columbia Council representative for Town Center, said that area is more susceptible to crime because of its open spaces, pathways and easy access. He said the new program should help decrease crime.

"Anytime you put emphasis on an area, the area should feel it," he said.

McMahon said the department would evaluate the results of the program at the end of the 10 weeks and decide what to do next.

"If we've been successful, we'll see if we should do it elsewhere," he said. And if the number of robberies rises again, "we'll see if we need to do something else more permanent."

Pub Date: 7/23/96

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