Merchants at Hunt Valley Mall, where a light rail stop opens in July, are eager for the flood of new customers -- even as they prepare for the shoplifters and other petty criminals also expected to ride the trains.
"Historically, wherever public transportation goes, crime seems to follow it," said mall manager Frederick C. Paine, whose view is typical of many who live and work near suburban light rail stations. "And we want to be proactive about it."
Police statistics seem to support Paine's theory: In the five years light rail has been operating in Baltimore County, thefts and break-ins around the three stops in Lutherville and Timonium have increased.
At the Lutherville stop, on Ridgely Road, thefts hit an all-time high of 239 in 1994 and totaled 193 last year. Thefts around the Timonium Business Park stop reached 121 last year -- the highest in five years, according to county police statistics.
In Anne Arundel County, where there are five stops, the Cromwell Station stop in Glen Burnie has been a problem for local police, who have used special patrols.
But Anthony Brown, a Mass Transit Administration spokesman, said there is no evidence linking crime to light rail.
"The perception is that since it is an honor system, no one pays the fares," making it more attractive for criminals to ride, he said. "But our statistics show that less than half a percent of the riders do not pay the fares. We have our own police officers who ride the trains to verify that and provide a level of security."
Residents and business owners near some light rail stops, however, complain that thieves break into cars and offices or shoplift from stores after riding the trains to suburban shopping centers and office parks.
Eric Rockel, president of the Lutherville Community Association, said crime near the community's light rail station is "a significant problem, even though the types of crimes that are being committed are not of the major or serious types. It's the kind of things that make you feel insecure."
Capt. John Gaither of the Cockeysville police precinct said Lutherville draws many shoplifters because of a nearby Caldor department store.
"Back in 1993, when we first started having this problem, every day between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. we had people handcuffed in the hallway here, and I would ask them how they got out here, and they would say they rode the light rail," Gaither said.
That is what Kenneth Tyrone Harris, 36, told police when he was caught in November breaking into office buildings in the Lutherville area.
Harris, 36, was sentenced to 10 years after confessing to breaking into 60 offices in the Lutherville area and then riding the light rail home with a computer, cash or a fax machine that he had stolen, said Detective Steven Inge of the Baltimore County police.
"It was stuff that could be sold on the street," Inge said. According to court records, Harris had a heroin addiction.
Anne Arundel police say it is impossible to determine whether light rail has brought crime to the shopping centers and communities around the stops. But outraged residents of communities along the line once demanded that MTA close the Linthicum Heights station because of a dramatic increase in crime there.
Police have since worked out an agreement with the MTA under which the state agency pays for additional county police patrols. The patrols have made shoplifting arrests at the Cromwell Fields Shopping Center and at light rail stations.
Police still patrol the stations and the shopping center, ride the trains and keep in radio contact with the shopping center's private security officers, said Capt. Emerson Davis, commander of the Northern District police station.
Susan March, president of the Linthicum-Shipley Improvement Association, said crime in that community has settled down since the police patrols began. "And it's largely due to the work of the Police Department," she said.
Baltimore County police have a similar agreement with the MTA, and some shopping centers, including Yorkridge Shopping Center in Lutherville, have hired security officers in an effort to curb shoplifting and loitering.
"The light rail has brought a lot of people here that would not normally come here," said Eileen Zimmerman, owner of the Linen Loft at Yorkridge Shopping Center. For us, the biggest problem is shoplifting. We probably lose about $1,000 a month to that."
Merchants at the shopping center wonder what will happen when the Hunt Valley station opens.
"We are all making jokes that all the crime will bypass us up to Hunt Valley," Zimmerman said.
Merchants at Hunt Valley say they are hoping that light rail will bring people from all over the Baltimore area to their mall, where the largely empty parking lots and stores signal slow business.
"We are thrilled about the light rail," said Beth A. Lucca, the mall's marketing director. "The potential is great for bringing people right to our door."
Increased security measures -- including extra lighting, more security officers inside the mall and off-duty police officers patrolling outside the mall -- are being instituted in an effort to head off crime, said Paine, the mall's manager.
"Business is slow here," said Anne Conners, manager of Summit Stationers. "And I don't think we will have as many problems with crime as the Yorkridge Shopping Center, where there are woods to hide in. There is really no place to hide around here."
Total crimes reported within one-third mile of light rail stops:
Lutherville light rail stop
1992 132 incidents
1993 268 incidents
1994 279 incidents
1995 212 incidents
1996 231 incidents
Timonium Business Park light rail stop
1992 115 incidents
1993 109 incidents
1994 117 incidents
1995 122 incidents
1996 175 incidents
Timonium/Deerco Road light rail stop
1992 77 incidents
1993 82 incidents
1994 65 incidents
1995 62 incidents
1996 60 incidents
Baltimore Highlands stop
1992 34 incidents
1993 40 incidents
1994 48 incidents
1995 34 incidents
1996 44 incidents
Falls Road light rail stop
1992 30 incidents
1993 74 incidents
1994 51 incidents
1995 44 incidents
1996 59 incidents
SOURCE: Baltimore County Police Department.
Pub Date: 4/17/97