Westminster labeled 'dangerous' by online lists

Westminster Police Chief Jeff Spaulding is aware that links have been going around to websites naming Westminster one of the most dangerous cities in Maryland.

Spaulding is also aware, however, of the realities of crime trends in his city, and cautions residents about trusting statistics that oversimplify the facts.


"Statistics can be made to say pretty much anything you want them to say," Spaulding said.

At least two websites have published lists using 2012 FBI Unified Crime Report data that ranked Westminster among Maryland's most dangerous cities based on the number of violent and property crimes committed per resident. The websites are homesecurityshield.org, an alarm and monitoring system company, and movoto.com, a real estate company.


Both websites found that people in Westminster had a 1 in 21 chance of being the victim of a crime in 2012. Also included on the lists, though the order varies, are cities such as Baltimore, Elkton, Ocean City, Bladensburg, Cumberland and Hyattsville.

Westminster Mayor Kevin Utz said it is important to consider the source of the information when links to these lists start spreading on social media.

"I don't trust statistics coming from anyone who's trying to sell a product," he said.

A home security company benefits from labeling a city as "dangerous" because it can potentially increase their sales. Utz said a real estate website could be trying to steer clients away from some areas and into others.

Utz, a Realtor himself, said the National Association of Realtors prohibits practices of fear-based marketing, but only licensed Realtors are bound by such policies.

Spaulding said the statistics are also misleading because they combine violent crime and property crime.

"If you're going to equate a shoplifting with an armed robbery, that's just not accurate," he said.

With a rate of 6.49 violent crimes and 41.73 property crimes per 1,000 residents, according to homesecurityshield.org, Westminster's major issue is property crime, Spaulding said.

Property crimes include burglary and theft, both of which have decreased by about 10 percent compared with this time last year, Spaulding said. Though there have been a few more robberies and assaults compared with 2013, Spaulding said those numbers decreased from 2012 to 2013.

"You have to look at these things long term," Spaulding said.

In a town of 18,000, police are able to monitor statistics closely and pick up on trends, according to Spaulding. Each week, the department looks at crime data from the previous seven days and the previous four weeks to identify hot spots.

"We are constantly looking at our numbers," he said.


Underlying causes of crime

Spaulding also said drug use and mental health issues are linked to crime.

Drug dealers commit acts of violence against one another, Spaulding said, which investigators believe to be the motive for the murder of Luis Pol, 23, of New York, which occurred outside of Westminster on Oct. 4.

Drug users struggling to support their habit commit nonviolent crimes such as burglary and theft to get money quickly, such as Travis Tommy Conley, 25, of no fixed address, who entered a plea agreement to theft charges in June and was recently allowed to enter drug treatment court instead of spending more time in jail.

"We're certainly not going to arrest our way out of the drug problem in the United States," Spaulding said.

In some cases, Spaulding said, arrest is appropriate, such as the recent charges of possession with the intent to distribute levied against three men after the seizure of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and weapons from a home on East Green Street.

But with Westminster's relatively small department, Spaulding said the city has "finite drug investigation resources" to pursue dealers. The investigation into the three men arrested — Desmond Earl Gritten, 27, Duane Nesta Ross, 29, and Ralph Lee Herrion, 26 — took about eight months.

To combat crime that stems from mental health issues, Spaulding recently helped announce the formation of the Carroll County Crisis Intervention Team, a partnership between law enforcement, public safety agencies and health and wellness services.

Preventive measures to stop crimes of opportunity

Overall, Spaulding said, Westminster is a safe community. There are, however, steps residents can take to drive property crime numbers down.

"Most of the property crimes in our community are crimes of opportunity," he said. "That doesn't negate that it's a crime and it shouldn't have happened."

Small steps such as locking car doors and not leaving valuables in plain sight can go a long way to discourage a nonviolent criminal, Spaulding said. Many of the thefts from vehicles do not involve the vehicle being broken into but rather are the result of an unsecured door or window.

"I can't go around and lock cars for [people]," Spaulding said.

Approaching the holidays, Spaulding especially cautioned shoppers against dropping parcels in their cars and leaving them in plain sight and returning to the mall. Placing shopping bags in the trunk or otherwise out of view and locking the car before walking away can help prevent a theft.

Police will be conducting increased patrols in retail areas in Westminster during the holiday crime prevention initiative, Spaulding said.

Spaulding also said residents should continue to report suspicious activity and concerns to police.

"We'd rather come out 100 times for something that turns out to be innocuous," he said.

Reach staff writer Heather Cobun at 410-857-7898 or email heather.cobun@carrollcountytimes.com.

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