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One of Howard County's most epidemic crime problems -- auto thefts -- increased another 9.8 percent in 1991, and violent crime rose 6 percent, according to figures released by the Maryland State Police.

Nearly 1,100 vehicles were stolen in 1991, once again marking a county high in that category, and violent crime has grown by more than 40 percent in the last five years, the statistics show.

Auto thefts in Howard County have been steadily on the rise since1983, when 332 vehicles were stolen. This year's reported figure of 1,095 stolen autos is more than triple that amount.

Total crime inthe county rose 9 percent, compared to an 8 percent increase in crime statewide, figures from the state police uniform crime reporting bureau show.

Violent crime -- which includes murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault -- increased from 589 incidents reported in 1990, to 626 in 1991.

Those figures are up from approximately 450 reported incidents in 1986.

Eight murders were reported in 1991, compared to seven in the previous year. Rape was down, from 50 in 1990, to 46 in 1991, as was aggravated assault, from 433 to 424.

Five years ago, approximately 300 incidents of aggravated assault were reported, according to state and county figures.

Robbery increased 50 percent, to 148 incidents this year as compared to 99 in 1990, when a sharp decline in robberies was reported. In 1989, a year in which a rash of pizza delivery robberies occurred, 161 robberies were reported.

"These figures vary greatly from year to year," said Sgt. Gary L.Gardner, a county police spokesman. "Basically we attribute most of the crime increases to the growing county population. Robberies are typically associated with drug problems."

Police say that the auto thieves aren't gangs of "chop-shop" artists, but rather are juvenile offenders who have become experts at popping ignitions of cars they intend to use only as long as gas is in the tank.

"We recover roughly 90 percent of them within a week to two weeks of when they're stolen," said county police Detective John A. Newnan, who earlier this year became the department's first officer assigned full time to auto thefts.

"The kids who take them aren't chopping them up. They usually use them until they run out of gas, then they leave 'em in a parking lot and steal another one."

The biggest trouble spots remain apartment complex parking lots, mainly along U.S. 40, and areas around The Mall in Columbia, Newnan said.

Among Maryland counties, HowardCounty has the fifth-highest auto theft total behind Prince George's(9,854), Baltimore (5,913), Montgomery (3,378), and Anne Arundel (2,085).

Breaking and entering crimes in the county decreased 8 percent, from 1,802 to 1,657, and thefts rose 16 percent, from 4,899 to 5,673, the state police report said.

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