As Towson grows, so do concerns over violent crime

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.

As the police move resources into the downtown area, though, other parts of the precinct worry what that will mean for their neighborhoods.

Rob Williams, a Rodgers Forge resident and volunteer for the group Citizens on Patrol, often cruises the residential neighborhood and downtown Towson's bustling late-night bar scene along York Road.

"That's where all the police are," he said of the bars along the York Road corridor. "If Towson continues to build up the way it is, the police resources are going to be there, and that's going to pull the resources away from the community."

Police say they are committed to protecting the entire precinct, and are encouraging residents to help by reporting criminal activity when they see it.

Another Citizens on Patrol group recently formed in central Towson, where volunteer Pat France says she's encouraging businesses to join residents in keeping watch to fight crime.

Johnson, the police chief, said detectives have worked to solve several cases of street robbery in Towson, which they believe were committed by a handful of offenders.

"They simply roam throughout the metro region committing these robberies. They look for prime targets, individuals who are alone or perhaps not paying attention," Johnson said during a recent public appearance.

Hartman, the community group representative, gave credit to police for solving the cases and noted that the county has been receptive to community concerns.

"Solving the crimes, they are doing their job at that. So I guess the issue is: How do we prevent the crimes?" he said.

Spivey, the Towson student, was taken to Sinai Hospital, where he underwent surgery, after the November stabbing. Police have since charged three men with attempted murder in the attack.

The weeks of recovery cost Spivey his fall semester. He is now planning to return and finish his degree in digital illustration.

"I didn't come back to Towson for a while. I stayed at my grandmother's house" in Prince George's County, Spivey said. He said he still feels safe in Towson and continues to travel by foot. "I've just been pretty jumpy on my walks home at night."

A previous version of this story made an incorrect reference to an incident at the Towson Town Center Mall.

Towson precinct crime statistics

January through September 2013 vs. five-year average for comparable period

2013, Average, Increase

Robberies, 120, 113, 6.2%

Aggravated assault, 164, 145, 13.1%

Violent crime, 293, 268, 9.3%

Total crime*, 2,271, 2,181, 4.1%

*Covers violent crime and property crime

Source: Baltimore County Police

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