Burglars targeting homebuilding sites in Baltimore County Number of burglaries increasing in 15 of Maryland's 23 counties

March 24, 1998|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

The bare dirt, bare windows and barely dry paint of new homes form a repeating, recognizable pattern in northwest Baltimore County -- and a target for thieves who have looted lumber, tools and newly installed appliances from construction sites.

So far this year, police say, there have been 29 construction-site burglaries in the county -- compared with 11 during the same period a year ago.

The vanishing stoves, washing machines and dryers are one quirky example of a trend found in much of Maryland. Despite a drop in numbers for most other major crimes, the number of burglaries is rising.

In 15 of Maryland's 23 counties, burglaries increased during the first nine months of last year.

In Baltimore County, for example, burglaries increased 4.1 percent, from 6,858 incidents in 1996 to 7,136 in 1997. In Howard, the increase was even greater -- 17 percent, according to figures released last month, with 1,497 burglaries in 1997 compared with 1,278 in 1996.

Figures compiled by the Maryland State Police for the first nine months of 1997 -- the most recent period for which statistics are available -- showed similar increases in Carroll, where burglaries increased by 16 percent -- 606 burglaries in January to September 1997, compared with 521 for the same period in 1996.

In Anne Arundel and Harford, state police recorded slight declines in breaking and entering incidents for the first nine months of 1997.

Police and crime experts say burglary -- and theft in general -- is a complex crime that doesn't lend itself to a one-size-fits-all description or solution.

But two factors are clearly at work in areas where burglary is increasing, they say: More drugs -- in particular, heroin -- and more people. More population brings more opportunity, more places tocommit burglaries.

"We're seeing an increase in arrests and convictions for heroin," said Baltimore County Police Chief Terrence B. Sheridan. "I think that's the big motivator."

Someone with a $100-a-day drug habit, he said, needs to steal $500 to $700 worth of goods to get $100 in cash, whether by fencing, pawning or selling the goods on the street. In the past nine months, according to police, all but two of the people arrested by Baltimore County burglary detectives told police they had a drug problem.

"Some of the people we've arrested have been heroin addicts," agreed Sgt. Morris Carroll, spokesman for Howard County police.

Like Baltimore County, Howard County saw the number of construction-site burglaries increase last year. "Construction sites have had breaking and entering, burglaries -- especially of appliances," Carroll said.

Other than the thieves who are targeting new homes, police have found few clear patterns in the numbers.

"Over the past year, they ran in spurts," said Lt. Jerome Foracappo, head of Baltimore County's burglary section. "They wane for a while, then come back up for a while." Construction sites emerged as a problem about a year ago, he said.

In Harford County, the number of burglaries dropped last year. But Harford County Sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Edward Hopkins could offer no explanation.

"We've had increased community participation by citizens -- I would like to think that has had some impact," he said. "But realistically, we're probably just plain lucky."

One criminologist said that such noncrime factors as house design and location might have the most impact on incidents of burglary.

"Burglaries are less likely in certain kinds of neighborhoods," said Lawrence W. Sherman, professor of criminology at the University of Maryland, College Park. "The kinds of houses being built are easier to burglarize."

Sherman also cautioned that the rising number of incidents might not be statistically significant. Burglary rates -- the number of burglaries calculated per thousand or hundred thousand -- have been dropping in Maryland and nationally, he said. Between the 1970s and the 1990s in Maryland, he said, there was about a 50 percent drop in burglary rates.

That drop was linked to Maryland's increase in population during those two decades, Sherman said. The rate is the ratio between people and incidents. As population rises, the rate goes down unless the incidents show a huge increase.

One deterrent for burglars is having someone around, he said. Home invasions -- in effect, a burglary with the homeowner present -- get a lot of publicity when they happen but are statistically rare, he said.

But the greatest deterrent is probably the simplest, police say: Lock things up, every time.

Some of the construction site burglaries occurred in houses that had not been locked, Foracappo said -- a sliding glass door or a window had been left open.

Simple reminders to lock up have helped in established neighborhoods. In the Village of Long Reach, which the state has declared a "Hot Spot" area where crime is a problem, village board chairman Henry F. Dagenais said that he thought citizen participation in crime prevention had helped tremendously.

"You constantly have to remind people to do those things," he said.

Pub Date: 3/24/98

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