Howard County is trying to shed some light on crime problems lingering in the Columbia village of Long Reach - literally.
In the coming weeks, the county will participate in a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.-sponsored demonstration showing the difference between the yellow-tinged sodium vapor now in streetlights and newer, more expensive metal halide bulbs that emit brighter, whiter light.
Crime experts and police officers say lighting is one of the best and most cost-effective ways to flush crime out of a particular area, but stargazers and light-pollution opponents warn that too much light can ruin the portrait of the night sky.
Howard County officials began researching lighting after some Long Reach residents complained that teen-agers congregate in dark places near the village center and sometimes vandalize the streetlights, plunging the area into darkness.
Police and residents also report that they have trouble discerning clothing colors at night - a common problem with the sodium vapor lights widely used in the county and across Maryland.
"With the lights we're going to put up, if it's red, it's red," BGE outdoor lighting specialist Bernard Kelm said about color recognition. "With sodium vapor lights, if it's red, it's brown or some other dark color."
Kelm will soon install metal halide bulbs in two lights in a private residential complex on Airybrink Lane near the village center. Later, he will put a few metal halide bulbs in county-owned streetlights along Tamar Drive, he said.
The catch is that the new bulbs would cost an additional $8 per light per month, Kelm said. "They'll have to determine if it's worth it," he said.
For now, the county has no immediate plans to permanently replace bulbs in streetlights anywhere in the county, said Parris Zirkenbach, a traffic engineer who handles lighting for the Department of Public Works. The county pays about $25 to $30 a month for each of its sodium vapor lights, Zirkenbach said.
"We can understand why police need to be able to have good visibility in high-crime areas," he said. "But we've got to look at the cost, too."
Zirkenbach said police might be able to secure a federal grant to improve lighting.
Some commercial areas, such as the Oakland Mills Shopping Center, use metal halide bulbs to dissuade criminal activity at night, and Kelm said that residential areas like Airybrink Lane might want to use the bulbs for the same reason.
Police enlisted Kelm's expertise over the summer. He toured Long Reach with a police officer one night to point out shadowy areas where he thought lighting could be drastically improved by metal halide bulbs.
"When I was out with the officer, there were two girls walking on Airybrink, and we could not identify the color of their clothes until they got up to the village center," Kelm said.
The village center uses more powerful lights than the adjacent streets.
Pfc. Holly Burnham, who works in the community service section of the Howard County Police Department, said she strongly recommends good lighting in all residential areas.
"The bad guy does not want to be seen, it's as simple as that," she said. "Plus, good lighting helps us [the police] see."
Burnham said BGE surveys private areas and, with county police, will make suggestions to the property owners. On public roads, county engineers can elect to install brighter lights.
Burnham helped put in new lights - although they are not metal halide bulbs - in the Whiskey Bottom neighborhood off U.S. 1 in southern Howard County about three months ago. She said it has been making a difference.
But as much as police and some residents would like night to resemble day, others say that too much lighting is a nuisance.
Dave Crawford, director of the Arizona-based International Dark Sky Association, said outdoor lighting should be used sparingly.
"We just want people to look at other methods of crime deterrence and remember that lighting things as bright as possible isn't always the best answer," he said.
But Crawford did acknowledge that good lighting gives residents the perception that they are safer, which he said is important to the overall health of a community.
Howard County also is examining other lighting-related strategies for fighting crime in Long Reach. Among the other ideas: cutting back shrubbery around the light poles so that kids can't sneak up to them to cut wires and weld shut the fuse boxes.
Those plans fit with the National Crime Prevention Council's tips for reducing the chance that a crime will occur by considering lighting, locks and landscaping when constructing neighborhoods.
"Lighting reduces the opportunities for crime to occur and gives people a better sense of security, which encourages them to be out at night," said James E. Copple, the council's vice president.
Copple said residents who live in areas where crime is a problem should consider using the brightest lighting possible.
"People have to weigh the risk," Copple said. "If you're in a high-crime area, you're going to put up with more light pollution. If you're in a low-crime area, you can afford the luxury of turning out the lights at night."