Towson University student Mykeal Spivey was walking toward his off-campus apartment when three men came up from behind, demanded his cellphone and attacked him when he refused. Spivey noticed the blood as he collapsed against a light pole; he hadn't realized they had stabbed him.
"I like to tell myself it was just odds. These things happen every now and then, unfortunately," said Spivey, 25. "Initially, everyone assumed that it happened downtown, not in Towson."
The attack was one of several violent incidents that have shaken the Baltimore County seat in recent months, and police and community groups have stepped up public safety campaigns in response.
The Baltimore County Police Department released figures Thursday that show Towson precinct robberies — at 120 — were up 6 percent in the first nine months of 2013. The area's 164 aggravated assaults marked a 13 percent increase. That's compared to a five-year average.
County officials are quick to credit recent initiatives for helping to keep those numbers in check. They stress that the Towson precinct — stretching from the city line to the Beltway and from Perring Parkway to Interstate 83 — is still very safe.
"Towson is the most densely populated precinct in the county," Baltimore County police Chief James Johnson said in a statement. It's "different from our other precincts because of its role as the County Seat and as a hub of education, commerce and entertainment."
Still, community members have been alarmed by reports of violence. In recent months, a 20-year-old Goucher College student was robbed of a phone at knifepoint, police said. Another Towson student was waiting in her roommate's car when a masked man got inside, drew a handgun and demanded "everything you've got."
The issue of crime has taken on added urgency as the area girds for redevelopment that will bring more people to the town center.
"I'm just concerned whether they will be equipped to handle the population," said Lori Rogers, a Towson resident of 10 years who said she recently kept her daughter home from a birthday party at Towson Town Center after an armed robbery there. "We moved from the city, like so many of our friends. And you have kids and want to have a good school district. … We love it here, but it is really concerning."
Towson, now home to about 55,000 people, is expected to grow with projects including the Towson Square commercial project and a 200-unit apartment building on York Road catering to college students. Towson Row, another project, will feature stores, offices and residential units.
"People are concerned about the rapid growth," said Paul Hartman, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations. Though he said it's difficult to predict how the change will affect crime, he added, "We do think there needs to be more of a police presence with all the additional development we are going to have."
At a recent news conference, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said he is "mindful of the planned growth for downtown Towson" and said he is working on measures that will "offer assurance to the community that Towson is as safe as anywhere else in the county."
Kamenetz made the comments this month as he announced that the county's homicide count had fallen to 19 last year, a contrast to neighboring Baltimore, where climbing murder rates have been a persistent issue over the past two years. There were two homicides in the Towson precinct in 2013.
Nancy Hafford, executive director of the Towson Chamber of Commerce, noted that Towson Town Center draws 16 million visitors to the community each year.
"That's a lot of bodies just coming into one segment of our community. … Our [crime] numbers are extremely low," she said.
Hafford said there are $500 million worth of development projects slated for the area.
"People aren't going to invest this much money to watch it fail," she said.
County Councilman David Marks, who represents Towson, said he continues to hear regularly from concerned constituents about crime, but he believes things have improved recently. He said the county has time to prepare for growth, because many of the projects will not be completed for several years.
"I think there is a perception issue that is driving some of these fears," he said.
The Police Department announced in the spring that it would send three additional officers to the Towson precinct to work on patrol at night. The move came in the wake of incidents including mob-like crowds following a shooting at the Recher Theatre and several other shootings at local bars.