Even tiny Bow, N.H., can't escape crime Baltimore police reporter finds that his hometown has same worries as city

November 02, 1997|By PETER HERMANN

BOW IS A SMALL TOWN in southern New Hampshire that has everything. Schools envied by less prosperous towns nearby. Affluent residents. Trees decked out in all the colors a New England fall can offer. And, it turns out, crime.

Not what we're used to here in Charm City, where crack and heroin addicts outnumber Bow's entire population eight-to-one. But enough illicit activity to put the town leaders on edge.

The Oct. 18 Bow Times, serving all 6,100 people living on 35 square miles on the banks of the Merrimack River, said it all in a headline stripped across the front page: "Police seek two more officers and cruisers."

Inside, another story had the police chief threatening to suspend the overnight shift if he couldn't put two officers in the lone patrol car on the street after midnight.

Below that was another headline: "Drug use increasing in Bow."

Has the crime that followed suburban sprawl reached my boring hometown 70 miles to the north of Boston? How far out do people have to go to escape urban ills, yet still feel connected to the bustling life of a city?

Bow is a place where police will drive by your house when you're on vacation to make sure nobody has broken in. A town that hasn't had a fatal car accident in four years. Where crime statistics track the number of snowmobile complaints.

It's been a dozen years since I walked out of Bow Memorial School on to the big high school in neighboring Concord - the capital despite being the state's third largest city with 34,000 residents.

Now, Bow has its own high school, built over the town dump. Homeowners must put their trash out by the side of the road, ending a weekly pilgrimage to the landfill, the local soap box for politicians and all-around community gathering place.

Police Chief Peter A. Cheney warned residents in last year's annual report that his seven-member department with four cruisers is losing ground.

Arrests are down, from 46 to 32 in the past two years, "a result of less officer patrol time," the chief wrote. Complete house checks for vacationing homeowners are no longer possible: "A visual drive-by is the most an officer has time to perform."

Meanwhile, Bow's population has gone from 5,500 in 1990 to 6,100 this year. Now, on average, 54 new houses are built each year in town.

In some ways, Cheney's comments sound like the commander of the Eastern District in Baltimore - 220 cops strong yet still battling it out daily for control on deadly street corners. More cops. More cruisers. More equipment.

Bow doesn't have drug corners such as Baltimore's Hoffman and Holbrook, or Greenmount and North, or Biddle and Bond. There are no notorious drug corners in this bedroom town, though there are new "drug free zone" signs posted near the schools.

Baltimore struggles with a declining population and tax base. Bow struggles with more residents eating up the town's money. Whether Baltimore or Bow, basic government services struggle to keep up. And flight from the cities does not mean an escape from crime, or being scared of it.

"The fear of crime in Baltimore and in your town is indistinguishable," argues Lawrence Sherman, chairman of the department of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"It's the integration of small towns in America with global affairs," Sherman says. "The influence of television, the Internet and other electronic media has made what happens next door to you less '' important then what happens around the world. The distinction between global and local is disappearing."

But this is still Bow, where arrests are measured in double, not six digits. Where dispatchers handled 24,000 calls last year, not 1.7 million as in Baltimore. Where assaults and stolen cars and burglaries can be counted on two hands.

The town manager, Albert St. Cyr, talks the same way his police chief does. "With the population increasing, we will find more and more of this sort of urban character occurring here," he says.

Bow did have a bit of bad luck recently. Baltimore police would call it a spurt - one of those weekends where a dozen people get shot and several of them die - most the result of butchered dope deals.

Within a few weeks in Bow, a man was arrested on sexual child abuse charges. Another man busted after a six-month probe of cocaine use. And police re-opened an investigation into the death of a 3-year-old child who was hit by a car. An autopsy found the child had cocaine in his system.

"Most of what we deal with would be minor compared to what has happened here in the last few weeks," St. Cyr said. "I've been here eight years and I haven't seen anything like that before. It's more of an aberration. I don't know to explain it any other way."

Sounds like a Baltimore police commander describing a bad afternoon.

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