Maryland's crime rate decreased 6.3 percent last year, reaching a new low in the state's per-capita incidence of violent and property offenses and mirroring a national trend.
The figures released by state officials Wednesday and reported to the FBI are the lowest since modern crime tracking began in 1975. That continues a pattern of the state notching record lows for most of the past 14 years, though as crime rates dropped more sharply in other states, Maryland has remained one of the most violent.
The numbers run counter to the public's perception about crime and safety and even surprise some experts who expected the rates to rise amid a recession — a pattern that's been borne out in previous economic downturns, according to criminologists. Some experts said they are hard pressed to pinpoint an explanation for the declines.
"This economic downturn has not been associated with a crime increase," said Gary LaFree, a criminologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, noting that this is the first time there's been a disconnect since the Depression. "No one knows for sure why."
Local officials believe a combination of technological advances and information-sharing — within departments and across jurisdictional lines — are helping to deter crime.
"It's about working smarter," said Maj. Thomas Wilson, the patrol commander for the Anne Arundel County Police Department, which implemented the Comstat police data analysis technology two years ago. "Here and across the nation, the resources are what they are. But we're using data to drive what we do, to do a better job and put resources in the right place at the right time."
Gov. Martin O'Malley, who became Baltimore's mayor on a tough-on-crime platform and has pushed crime-fighting efforts at the state level, touted the lower crime rates.
"Working together with state and local law enforcement, with our partners and neighbors in communities across Maryland, we have helped drive crime down to its lowest level in recorded history," O'Malley said in a statement.
The state has helped county and city agencies implement Comstat and to get license plate readers installed in police cruisers. They have expanded DNA collection and created a "dashboard" program to share information.
In 2010 the state's violent crime rate dropped 7.2 percent, while property crime declined 6.1 percent, according to data compiled by the Maryland State Police from jurisdictions statewide. Howard County led the way, with its total crime rate falling 7.7 percent and violent crime falling by 26.6 percent.
The FBI reported earlier this year that violent crime had fallen by an estimated 5.5 percent nationwide between 2009 and 2010, while property crime fell 2.8 percent.
Frank E. Zimring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said previous periods of national crime declines occurred during times of prosperity and increases in the prison population. But this recent period has been marked by recession and declining incarceration rates. He said Baltimore and its falling homicide count are a notable example of the perplexing national trend.
"There's certainly been no major economic or institutional steps forward that one would confidently expect would be reflected amid crime declines," Zimring said. "It isn't that declining crime reflects good news on a lot of other fronts — it's almost an isolated piece of good news without any obvious linkage to other nice things happening in these cities.
"We don't comprehend the dynamic of what has been driving it down," he said.
Driven largely by a decline in property crimes, which are the most plentiful, the state's drop in crime has been dramatic. The state's crime rate was 3,549 crimes per 100,000 people last year. That compares with 4,838 per 100,000 people in 2000, 5,830 in 1990, and 6,627 in 1980.
Maryland has long been among the most violent states in the country, despite its ranking as one of the wealthiest. That's likely explained by the wide gulf between haves and have-nots, according to LaFree, who says income inequality is a reliable predictor of crime.
Data from other states — and state-by-state comparisons for 2010 — were not immediately available.
Officials acknowledge that the public is skeptical about such drastic drops in crime statistics. Bill Toohey, a spokesman for the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention who was a longtime spokesman for the Baltimore County Police Department, noted that the trend is not limited to Maryland and likely stems from a variety of factors.
"Some experts think it has to do with simply more people in prison," Toohey said. "Others think that technology is making it easier to solve and prevent crimes. Others will tell you it has to do with greater cooperation from the public. All those together probably combine to bring about these remarkable drops."
Crime began rising in the late 1980s and early 1990s amid the crack cocaine epidemic. Since then, crime in Maryland has dropped, in many categories to below the pre-spike levels. Baltimore, for example, now boasts of an overall crime rate that is 27 percent lower than in 1975.
While city officials routinely face heavy scrutiny and questions about the reliability of data, neighboring jurisdictions flaunt even greater gains in the fight against crime: Anne Arundel's crime rate is 47 percent lower than in 1975, while Howard County's is 54 percent lower.
Many criminologists say homicides might be the most reliable way to gauge broad crime changes, as those figures are the least likely to be manipulated. Indeed, the state's murder rate of 7.4 killings per 100,000 also reached its lowest level on record. LaFree said that would support the contention that the declines are real.
The state's largest jurisdictions have been boasting some of the biggest drops. Baltimore County experienced its lowest violent crime rate last year since 1976, and its 20 homicides were the lowest on record. Prince George's County saw its lowest violent crime rate since 1978.
Meanwhile, some smaller counties are seeing increases. Allegany County experienced a 10.7 percent increase in total crime last year and its highest crime rate ever. Its violent crime rate was more than double that of 1975.
Cecil County, which has seen crime increases in recent years, reversed the trend last year with a 9.8 percent reduction in violent crime and a 6.5 percent drop in property crime.
Maryland had the ninth-highest rate of violent crimes in 2009 with 590 per 100,000 people, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting program. That compared with Virginia's rate of 226 violent crimes per 100,000 people and Pennsylvania's rate of 380. Delaware had the fourth-highest violent crime rate at 636 per 100,000 people.
Zimring said it's impossible to predict where crime trends are headed.
"You cannot predict anything that you can't explain," he said.