When asked several months ago whether he thought Howard County residents had an unreasonable fear of crime, County Executive Charles I. Ecker responded with customary diplomacy. "Perceptions are reality," he said, at once suggesting that the fear, no matter how unwarranted, was no less a problem.
Since then, county officials have been moving on a number of fronts to reassure residents about their safety. With a combination of real action and public relations efforts, a concerted attempt is being made to address the concerns residents feel regardless of the actual dangers.
Much of the effort has yet to bear fruit, and a thorough analysis will have to wait. State's Attorney Marna McClendon's efforts to meet with various communities to discuss how cases should be prosecuted is an example that may seem superficial at first glance, but that could produce good results.
Of more immediate effect is the county's decision to post police bike patrols along Columbia's walking paths, a move that should address an enduring concern in the planned community. Because the paths are considered private property, police have lacked the authority to remove trespassers without Columbia Association approval. That could change as the association moves to place almost 3,000 acres of open space under a state statute that would give police greater powers.
In addition, the police department's increasing use of the Mobile Command Center is a welcome move. A highly visible police force acts as a deterrent, and the command center gives the department flexibility it had lacked.
But while we hesitate to call such efforts only cosmetic, it would be naive to think they alone will solve the problems caused by fear. Addressing the community's perceptions is important, but it won't eradicate crime.
Unless these efforts actually lower the county's crime rate, few opinions are likely to change. Efforts to fight homelessness, improve the education of disadvantaged students and instill meaningful values may be just as important in fighting crime. While the benefits of these initiatives may not be as directly apparent as a show of force, they may be more lasting.
Howard County is in the enviable position of having a large array of agencies and resources at its disposal. Marshalling them in a way that produces results is the challenge officials face.