Driven by a substantial increase in robberies, serious crimes in Howard County rose by a third in the first three months of 1995 -- a rise county police partly attributed yesterday to a mild winter that made life easier for criminals.
The increase in the number of crimes reported -- continuing a countywide rise in serious crime over the past two years -- came despite a slight drop in some types of violent crime, including rape and assault, and a dip in auto theft.
During the January to March period this year, robberies nearly doubled and theft went up by 71 percent compared to the same period last year, according to county crime statistics released yesterday. The number of robberies with firearms doubled from the year before, including several robberies that took place at automated teller machines.
Though the rise in the number of serious crimes may follow partly from the county's continuing population growth, Howard residents often talk of increased fear of crime -- particularly in Columbia, North Laurel and the busy U.S. 40 and U.S. 1 corridors, the top areas for serious crime.
"Criminals strike in the afternoon, in the morning, in the evening, in the night time," said Howard Councilman Darrel Drown, a Republican of Ellicott City. "It's very difficult to feel safe at any one time at any place. It's an alarming trend nationwide."
Howard County's crime problem also is part of a metro-wide pattern, county police said.
Maj. Mark Paterni cited as an example two men jailed in a regionwide crime spree that included armed robberies of gas stations, convenience stores and motels in Columbia and Jessup, along with crimes elsewhere in Maryland and in Virginia and Washington, D.C.
"You can't look at Howard County in isolation," Major Paterni said. "We're impacted by Baltimore and Washington."
The winter's benign weather -- a sharp contrast to the previous winter -- also was a factor in the first quarter's crime picture, said Sgt. Steve Keller, a Howard police spokesman.
During the mild weather, residents left sliding glass doors and windows open, bicycles were left out and unlocked, and people walked on the streets and on the wooded paths. A rash of bicycle thefts and garage burglaries cropped up earlier this year, particularly in Columbia.
County Councilman C. Vernon Gray, a Democrat representing east Columbia, said the increase in serious crimes illustrates the need for "We should increase police patrols to prevent burglaries and robberies," Mr. Gray said.
Mr. Drown, meanwhile, said he identifies with frustrated crime victims. His son's bicycle was stolen last year, and he still remembers when someone broke into his home and stole a videocassette recorder 10 years ago, he said.
"You feel violated," he said.
Police said less serious crimes -- the category that includes drug violations, driving while intoxicated and vandalism -- also increased to 2,177 in 1995 in the first three months of the year, up from 2,001 in the same period last year.
But motor vehicle thefts, which totaled 1,155 in 1994, took their first dip in years -- falling by about 8 percent in the first three months of this year.
A victim in one of the county's 46 robberies in the first three months of this year, Steven Koplan, a clerk at the Royal Farm Store in the Oakland Mills village, got a close-up view of Howard's growing crime problem.
Mr. Koplan, 18, was working the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift March 30 when a man pointed a gun at him "casually, as if asking for a pack of cigarettes," and demanded cash. Startled, Mr. Koplan turned over $100 in cash.
He left the job two weeks later after another robbery occurred at the store.
"It wasn't worth the wages," said Mr. Koplan. "I am angry that somebody would do something like that. . . . I could have been shot and laying there on the ground."
Within the past week, police arrested two men from Oakland Mills in that robbery, but that still doesn't ease Mr. Koplan's frustration.
"It made me mad," Mr. Koplan said. "I know almost everybody around here. This is my neighborhood, and I don't like to see that happen to no one."
County police reported these first-quarter crime report totals for 1995, with comparative figures for 1994.
Offense ... ... 1995 ... ... 1994
Murder .. .. .. 0 ... .. ... 1
Rape ... ... .. 6 ... .. ... 8
Robbery ... ... 46 .. .. ... 25
assault ... ... 54 .. .. ... 84
Burglary ... .. 295 .. .. .. 260
Larceny ... ... 1,579 ... .. 922
Auto theft ... 263 ... .. .. 286