More tourists, petty crime are sailing into Annapolis

Warning, not scaring, visitors is the goal

July 22, 1999|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

As Annapolis attracts more tourists, petty crime in Maryland's sailing capital and quaint, historic downtown also has increased -- nearly tripling since 1988.

That has left officials in this marketing and public-image-conscious city with a dilemma: How do you tell tourists to be more careful without scaring them away?

"It's kind of like saying, `Drink Coca-Cola but drink too much of it and it could rot your teeth,' " said Thomas W. Roskelly, city spokesman. "That's not how you promote a product. We want to say, `We love it here. We think you'll love it, too, but don't leave crime prevention at home when you come here.' "

FOR THE RECORD - In yesterday's Maryland section, an article about crime in Annapolis misidentified Officer Eric Crane as a spokesman for the Anne Arundel County Police Department. He works for the Annapolis Police Department.
The Sun regrets the error.

The Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Conference and Visitors Bureau has logged a jump in tourists passing through their office from 193,728 in 1994 to 224,664 last year.

The number of larcenies, robberies and burglaries downtown during the summer has jumped from 58 in 1988 to 146 last year. The biggest increase -- from 47 in 1988 to 116 last year -- has been in larcenies, which includes shoplifting, thefts from vehicles and pickpocketing.

Several factors have brought about the increase, said Officer Eric Crane, Anne Arundel police spokesman. People are more aware of crime than 10 years ago -- someone who might not have called police about a stolen bicycle probably does today. Having a larger number of people in an area also creates more opportunities for theft, he said.

Crane emphasized that the increase in downtown crime is not a serious problem, but police want to remind tourists that they can be easy targets for criminals. So, they are brainstorming how to get the message out in a low-key way that won't hurt tourism.

"Is Annapolis safe to walk around? Absolutely," Crane said. "But people come to Annapolis because they hear about the tranquillity of the water and the beauty of the boats, and some of them assume they don't have to be as aware of their surroundings here as they are at home. They're lax.

"They leave their cell phones out in the car; they don't lock their doors, and sometimes they're targeted because criminals think tourists carry a lot of cash around."

Crane emphasized that tourists and residents are careless, but police can school residents in crime prevention through neighborhood watch programs or community meetings.

With tourists, preventing crime is trickier. Police rely on alternatives such as increasing foot and bicycle patrols downtown during the summer.

Lt. Robert E. Beans, city police crime prevention coordinator, said officers also have asked downtown residents and Neighborhood Watch block captains to call police or to stop an officer if they see any suspicious activity in areas popular with tourists. They also want calls about visitors being careless.

"We encourage them to call us if they see something that's a criminal opportunity, like if they see a car with out-of-state tags and with items sitting in plain view," Beans said. "We'll send an officer down, and we'll try to locate the owner of the vehicle."

Residents also are trained to spot the methods of scam artists, who often surface during the summer.

"There are a lot of scam artists with sob stories like, `I'm pregnant and I need to get back home and I don't have bus fare. Can you loan me $20?' " Crane said. Such artists often target visitors because "tourists sometimes are embarrassed they got duped, and they'll go home without reporting it to the police."

Probably the most unique prevention method police have come up with to help visitors is an offshoot of the Neighborhood Watch program. Beans said a retired downtown Annapolis couple, Bob and Peggy Van Gilder, block captains in the program, often spend their day sitting outside an ice cream store downtown, wearing their dark blue Neighborhood Watch caps and making sure visitors are careful.

If a visitor doesn't lock his or her car, the couple will remind them to do so, Beans said.

"We don't have a bad city," Beans said. "We have a dynamite city. We want people to understand that Annapolis is a dynamite city to take a vacation. But regardless of where you go, don't let crime prevention take a vacation."

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