Former Howard County police officer turned security consultant Victor Riemer finds a warm reception these days when he knocks on homeowners' doors to pitch burglar alarms. "The fear of crime is hitting them," he says. "More times than not, they're thankful I showed up."
Howard police officers say such fear is only natural, but a review of county and state crime statistics dating back to 1975 indicates much of this concern may be unfounded:
* While the total number of crimes has increased since 1975, the county's mushrooming population has pushed down the crime rate steadily since 1986. Statewide, the crime rate has risen since 1984.
* In Howard, the wealthiest county in Maryland, residents are more likely to suffer property crimes -- as opposed to violent crimes -- than those living almost anywhere else in the state.
* Juveniles in Howard are committing an increasing number of serious crimes, defined as murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, breaking and entering, larceny and motor vehicle theft. The 1,657 juveniles arrested for serious crimes in 1994 represented a 23 percent increase over 1993.
* Compared with Baltimore City and six other counties in the area -- Anne Arundel, Montgomery, Carroll, Harford, Prince George's and Baltimore -- Howard County's crime rate is third lowest after those of Carroll and Harford.
But Howard's relatively few high-profile, heinous crimes rivet residents' attention, crimes such as the 1992 carjack-killing of Savage research chemist Pam Basu.
"The big ones make people ask questions," says Debbie Ross, a leader of Fighting Chance, a Columbia-based self-defense group for women. Ms. Ross says class rolls swelled after the 1993 killing of 16-year-old Tara A. Gladden, whose body was found in Columbia's Town Center. A Baltimore man has been charged in the killing.
Nevertheless, these headline-grabbing incidents don't prompt good safety practices by residents, Howard police Sgt. Karen Burnett, head of the force's Crime Prevention Section, says.
Some county residents still leave their keys in their cars or the doors of their vehicles, houses and garages unlocked. Howard police Pfc. Darryl Thompson says he sees a lot of unsafe behavior: women jogging alone down dark streets and cyclists using Columbia's wooded bike paths at night.
Last August, nine Columbia youths were arrested in an attack on a boy who was pistol-whipped on a path.
"I see so much [outdoor] activity from those groups who are the most vulnerable," says Officer Thompson, who recently had a burglar alarm installed in his home. "Everybody wants to feel comfortable, but everything's not rational."
Police acknowledged problems on Columbia's pathways last June with new patrols from 1:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Police Chief James Robey said then that the schedule was designed for officers' safety by not putting them on the paths late at night. Officer Roch DeFrances said: "At night you're a target, not a police officer. It can get crazy."
Still, violent attacks are rare in Howard.
The county had four homicides last year. Two were believed to be the result of domestic disputes. The most publicized was the slaying last December of Shirley Harney of Ellicott City. Her estranged husband, who went with their two children to Walt Disney World before he was arrested as a result of the "America's Most Wanted" television show, has been charged in her death.
If you're the victim of a crime in Howard, the vast odds -- a 93.4 percent chance -- are that someone went after your property. Howard's rate of property crimes as a percentage of all crimes was the highest among Baltimore-area jurisdictions, with Baltimore City ranking lowest at 77.6 percent.
"This county is infamous for property crimes," Officer Thompson says. "That's where we get hit the hardest."
Thieves steal anything they can get their hands on: bikes, pets, stray tools, hoses, lawn equipment, hubcaps and even sunglasses, stereos and briefcases left in vehicles.
In 1994, Howard recorded 5,823 larcenies, making up two-thirds of the serious crimes in the county. Last year, police made 1,078 arrests for larceny.
A rash of home burglaries in December 1993 prompted fear among residents of Columbia's Long Reach village. In another string of county burglaries last winter, intruders entered unlocked garages and stole property from the garages or inside homes. Although police believe most of the burglaries were the work of two men now in custody, they said copycat burglars continue to operate.
Residents turn to alarms
These burglaries prompted more county residents to buy alarm systems for their homes, purchases that police say often represent the first response of crime victims. "They know crime's spreading out and it's getting to be everywhere," says Mr. Riemer, the security consultant who left the county police force in December after 10 years. "Some are frightened enough to invest in more of an alarm system than they need."
One recent alarm purchaser, Dana Leonard of Elkridge, says she and her husband bought an alarm system when they moved into their new home in late December to "protect our investment."
"The alarm makes me feel better," she says, adding that it quells much of her fear about crime -- while she's inside her home.
But residents also are vulnerable when they leave their fortresses.
A recent spate of robberies at automated teller machines in Columbia and at all-night gas stations and stores underscores the dangers of living in a 24-hour society.
On March 31, three men tried to rob a man at knifepoint as he sat in his parked car in Columbia's Harper's Choice village at midnight. The man escaped by driving away.
For three months, Howard police were stymied by a pair of men they blamed for a string of robberies at gas stations and convenience stores. Friday, two Prince George's County men were charged in eight of the Howard robberies. They also are being blamed for several dozen other crimes in nearby counties and northern Virginia.
That robbery spree -- and the charging of a Baltimore man in the Gladden girl's slaying -- would seem to support one myth widely believed among Howard residents, that most crime in the county is committed by people who come from higher-crime areas outside Howard.
But in spite of Howard's easy access from Baltimore and Washington, county police say most Howard crime is home-grown.
Take "smash and grab" burglaries. Last year, a large increase in such burglaries -- in which criminals smash the glass of a business with a brick, grab property and flee -- frustrated Howard merchants stuck with the expense of repairing the fronts of their shops.
Police blame many of those crimes on local residents who know the times that businesses close and who can quickly flee and merge back into the community before police arrive.
Juveniles tied to auto theft
Officers also blame local juveniles for pushing the county's 1994 motor vehicle theft total to 1,155, up 7 percent over 1993's total.
In January 1994, a group of Columbia teens who called themselves the "Low Riders" was linked to 20 four-wheel-drive vehicle thefts in Columbia that winter.
The group wrecked the vehicles and submerged some of them BTC in Columbia lakes. The ringleader was called a car theft "guru" by prosecutors, who said he boasted that he could steal a car in seconds using a screwdriver.
Police say such serious crimes by youths ages 13 to 17 are becoming more frequent. Juvenile arrests last year totaled 1,657 -- a 23 percent jump over 1993.
Rise in youth arrests
Last year, the number of youths arrested for thefts rose 41 percent, from 314 arrests in 1993 to 444. And the number of juvenile arrests in 1994 for burglaries -- entering property with the intention of committing a crime -- rose from 74 to 109.
"When we sometimes point to people's kids they say, 'No, it can't be,' " says Sergeant Burnett, the crime prevention officer. "People are getting to understand not all kids are saints like we think they are."
Then there are the lesser acts of destruction by county youths, such as ripping down Christmas lights, crushing residential mailboxes with baseball bats and spray-painting their names on walls.
Howard's Department of Recreation and Parks spent $50,000 last year to repair vandalized county property -- money that officials say could have been used to build new playgrounds or repair tennis courts.
Howard police say an increased presence in communities has helped them curb such vandalism and make residents feel safer. They're asking residents to tell them their concerns.
When they asked residents in Ellicott City and North Laurel recently, most people surveyed said they felt only "fairly safe" and wish police would drive by their homes daily.
"The greater visibility of the police makes me feel safer and the bad guys not," one resident in North Laurel's Whiskey Bottom area wrote.
County police say they've tried to ease residents' fears of crime in densely populated neighborhoods that generate a lot of calls for police service.
Police satellite offices already have been placed in the Stevens Forest Apartments in Columbia's Oakland Mills village and the Rideout Heath community in the Wilde Lake village.
But officers say there is only so much they can do. First, they say, residents must work to eliminate behavior that gives criminals the opportunity to strike. Says Sergeant Burnett: "People have got to wake up."