Crime Scenes: Seasonal warnings from area police agencies

Holidays can be dangerous, but does crime really increase?

November 24, 2010|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore County police want you to "enjoy the holiday bustle" but also to "be aware." The chief worries that holiday shoppers are often "in too much of a hurry to add safety to their list of must do's."

Police in Anne Arundel County remind you to keep all your newly bought gifts hidden in the trunk of your car and to carry your keys in your hand as you walk to your vehicle.

Maryland State Police warn that they'll have extra troopers patrolling the roadways, hunting for drunken drivers and speeders. Thanksgiving is typically one of the deadliest holidays for motorists.

And Baltimore police used to hand out greeting cards with this bit of cheer: "It can take 10 hours to find the perfect holiday gifts. It only takes 10 seconds to lose them."

The dire warnings might lead one to conclude we're on the verge of a crime surge. But are we really?

Though local agencies do not break down statistics by holiday, police say some crime does go up as thousands of people flood roads and malls. Their guards are down as they frantically search the stores, more concerned with finding the perfect gift than with losing it.

Car break-ins are among the most common crimes, and they're what police warn about most often over the holidays. There were 5,703 larceny-from-auto incidents reported in Baltimore through October this year, down from 6,271 over the same period last year.

In 2009, city police reported 57 such crimes over a seven-day period that included the Thanksgiving holiday, the traditional start of the Christmas buying season. That was down from 2008, when 98 were reported roughly that same week. Over one week in August, 144 cars were broken into, down from 178 during a week in August 2009.

The Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence reports that November and December were among the months in 2009 with the lowest number of assault complaints, with roughly 1,500 each month. The worst month last year was June, with more than 1,700.

In terms of homicides in Baltimore, November was the deadliest month in 2008 and 2009 — with 30 and 26 killings, respectively. But in 2006 and 2007, November was among the months with the fewest killings. December has been the city's deadliest month only once since 2003, when 30 people were killed.

Janet Lauritsen, a criminologist at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, said her research shows that violent crime spikes in July and August. "If there is any seasonality to this, it's in the summer," she said. "We don't see any spikes in violence in November and December."

Lauritsen, who studies crime trends by season, said she has concentrated her research on violence. At the request of The Baltimore Sun, she reviewed three years of data for robberies and larcenies, which include car break-ins, pickpocketing and purse-snatching.

She said there was no increase in robberies over the winter holiday months, but she found that larcenies across the country skyrocketed in December, jumping 60 percent from other months. "The cops are right," Lauritsen said.

It's clear that people die on the nation's roadways in much higher numbers around holidays than any other time of year. Dating back to the early 1990s, Thanksgiving has almost always been the deadliest of the six major holidays. Some years, more than 600 people across the country died in traffic accidents on Thanksgiving.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that on Thanksgiving Day 2008, 507 people died in crashes, more that year than the 494 on July 4, 493 on Labor Day, 426 on Christmas, 425 on Memorial Day and 424 on New Year's Day.

Last year was the first time since 2003 that Thanksgiving fell from its No. 1 ranking, coming in third with 411 deaths, behind Memorial Day with 473 and New Year's with 468.

Maryland State Police were not able to provide statistics showing traffic deaths by holiday season, but they did say that the fatalities in the state over the four-day Thanksgiving break dropped from 10 in 2007, to seven in 2008 and to six last year. State officials said about 550 people died on Maryland roads in 2009; 419 people have died through Nov. 23 this year.

In a statement describing saturation patrols, state police issued this warning: "Troopers ready for holiday traffic."

Bottom line: Heed the warnings.

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

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