Crime perceptions vs. reality Howard County: Fear of becoming a victim grows in spite of statistical drop.

November 19, 1996

AMONG THE BIGGEST costs of crime is fear. Residents in Columbia are afraid to walk their beloved pathways for fear of being mugged. People are afraid to shop at the Mall in Columbia after dark. The burglar alarm business is booming in Howard County and residents who live in affluent sections of Ellicott City find it necessary to have plenty of firepower at their disposal to defend their families against potential intruders.

The fear of crime is growing, at a seemingly exponential rate. The perception shared by many Howard residents is that problems emanating from Baltimore and Washington have made their own lives less secure.

But Howard's crime rate -- the number of offenses per resident -- actually has declined over the past generation. Howard has been RTC one of the fastest growing counties in Maryland for the past three decades, but the number of crimes has not kept pace with population growth since 1986. Statewide, by contrast, the crime rate has risen since 1984, largely driven up by Baltimore and Prince George's County.

The 9 percent increase in serious crimes trailed the county's 14.5 percent population growth in the first half of this decade.

While the numbers seem to bear good news, however, there is scant evidence that residents are breathing sighs of relief. The statistics have no affect on the growing perception that neighborhoods are not as safe as before.

The western part of the county has the least amount of crime, but its fears are as strong as areas hardest-hit. Challengers for two county Circuit Court judgeships shrewdly played on these fears with a tough-on-crime campaign leading to the election two weeks ago.

Indeed, plenty of reasons exist to remain vigilant. The number of crimes has risen over the years. This year has seen an increase in murders, rapes, aggravated assaults and robberies. Parents are duly alarmed when hearing reports such as the recent one that an unidentified man touched a girl in a local elementary school.

Everyone would be wise to take precautions to avoid being victimized. That's common sense. But this can be done without the county being held captive by its growing paranoia. No place is crime-free, but the statistics confirm that Howard County remains one of the safest places in the region.

Pub Date: 11/19/96

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