Maintaining close watch on crimes

Pair of killings jarred residents

police offer reassurance

`Perception is a real issue'

Drug use, proximity to Baltimore, D.C. seen as detriments

January 16, 2000|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

At a community meeting a few days after two young men were gunned down along an Oakland Mills footpath, tense residents loudly complained they no longer felt safe.

The Nov. 29 slayings, many said, were a wake-up call for not only Oakland Mills, but also suburban Howard County, where the rate of crime has remained below the state's, and most of the few killings that have occurred have been the result of domestic disputes rather than urban-style violence.

"I don't think it is going to get any better," said William Coyle, an Ellicott City resident who is co-chairman of the Howard County Citizens for Public Safety. "Columbia is changing. So is the rest of the county, but not as dramatically as Columbia."

Law enforcement experts outside the county say community fears might be justified. As difficult as it is to predict trends, drug problems, robberies, thefts and other crimes can be indicators of future violence, they say. Howard's proximity to high-crime Baltimore is particularly worrisome.

County police have sought to reassure residents, holding community meetings and pointing to statistics that show Howard's relatively low crime rate. County Police Chief Wayne Livesay blames intense media coverage of the killings and other high-profile crimes in the county for fueling fear.

"Perception is a real issue," he said last week. "And it's not just the newspapers. It is also TV. Every time you turn on the television, you see people dying."

Livesay agrees with outside experts, however, that geography makes the county vulnerable.

Because Howard County is wedged between Baltimore and Washington, county residents and police should not be surprised if they get spillover, said Thomas A. Constantine, who formerly worked with the Drug Enforcement Administration and New York State Police.

"Baltimore is the one city in the country that has shown no progress in reducing crime," Constantine said. "There are no barriers to the migration of those crimes."

Baltimore had 308 homicides last year, and most were drug-related. Although Howard has few killings -- eight last year -- at least one was drug-related. And while detectives have not officially established the motive in the Nov. 29 killings, drugs were found at the scene and both victims had a record of drug offenses.

One of the six Howard homicides in 1998 was drug-related, and two shootings in Harper's Choice in 1998 also had links to the drug trade, according to court testimony.

"There is a direct relationship to drug use and crime violence," Constantine said. "If more people are using drugs, then you can expect to see more drug violence."

The number of Howard County residents seeking treatment for substance abuse has increased from 1,229 in fiscal year 1993 to 1,310 in fiscal 1998, according to the most recent state figures.

Heroin use has continued to increase in Howard as well as in other jurisdictions. In the past two years, detectives posing as buyers have had no problem finding heroin dealers in Columbia, Laurel and along the U.S. 1 corridor.

"After a while, a pattern develops," Constantine said. "And rather than drive into Baltimore to get their drugs, the dealers move into the community."

And while in past years, most of those arrested for heroin possession or other crimes committed to support their habits were from Baltimore City or Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, that has also begun to change, with police arresting Howard residents, police have said.

Drug use is also apparent in county schools, with the number of students suspended for drug and alcohol use increasing from 117 during the 1996-1997 school year to 157 last school year, records show.

Other data aren't conclusive. While drug arrests dropped from 916 in 1995 to 753 through November 1999 countywide, at five of the nine Columbia village centers the number of drug complaints to police increased between 1997 and 1998, the last year for which figures were available. A decrease in thefts has been offset by an increase in robberies.

What does all this mean?

Livesay agreed that drug use can lead to more serious crime. But he emphasized that overall crime per capita in Howard is lower than it was in 1975. And it has remained lower than the state rate for 11 years.

Like Constantine, he sees Howard's location -- about 20 miles from Baltimore -- as a problem. He is trying to arrange a meeting with the chiefs of the major jurisdictions, including Baltimore and Prince George's County, where the crime rates are the highest. A new mayor and police chief in Baltimore could affect Howard, Livesay said.

"We need to know what is going on and what strategies Baltimore City is using," he said. "I am particularly concerned with the Route 40 and Route 1 corridors."

County Executive James N. Robey, a former Howard police chief and Livesay's mentor, said the Police Department cannot fight crime alone. It needs help from the community and other government agencies.

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