POLICE IN Howard County must take extraordinary steps to halt a string of robberies of fast-food deliverers in Columbia. These crimes, and Tuesday's armed robbery of a Giant supermarket in Wilde Lake, can be devastating to entire communities. The neighborhoods experiencing such crimes have been trying to overcome reputations as being dangerous -- a label that statistics prove is unfair in spite of the recent crimes, and one that more suburban communities are having to fend off, just like some urban neighbors. At least two restaurants overreacted by suspending deliveries in neighborhoods where the vast majority of residents are law-abiding citizens who deserve better. Robberies of fast-food deliverers decreased in Howard from 14 in 1997 to six last year. But three such incidents in the first two weeks of 1999 -- including one in which a woman delivering pizza was shot in the jaw -- have justifiably increased fears. Restaurants, though, don't have to remove entire neighborhoods from their delivery routes to increase the safety of employees. Police sent a letter to local restaurant managers in November urging them to be more careful when making food deliveries. Among other suggestions, the police said a restaurant should not deliver orders called in from cellular or pay phones. Yet in two of this month's incidents, the people robbed were delivering pizzas in response to bogus orders made from the same pay telephone. Restaurant owners shouldn't put employees in danger by failing to verify delivery orders. The extra time it takes to check could save someone's life. Even with such precautions, the police must step up efforts to root out criminals who prey upon fast-food deliverers. A pay telephone favored by bandits ought to be easy to stake out. Working with residents and community groups to identify criminal suspects will give everyone more peace of mind.