Violent crime drops nearly 22%; But incidents of rape, homicide rise in '98, police figures show; Numbers called deceptive; Increased community policing is credited for overall decrease


Nearly all types of crime fell in 1998 in Howard County, and police say they will take added steps to reduce false perceptions of high crime and address seemingly minor offenses.

Police said yesterday that the total number of violent crimes -- homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault -- decreased nearly 22 percent compared with 1997, from 545 to 427, despite increases in homicides and rapes. The county police compiled the statistics.

Property crimes -- burglary, theft and motor vehicle theft -- dropped 16.6 percent, from 8,694 to 7,249.

Police believe the drop is a result of increased community policing, state-sponsored programming and stronger communication between crime prevention agencies.

"I try to include our residents in our decision-making process and they tend to report things more," said Pfc. Lisa Bridgeforth, a community officer in Long Reach, where the county's state-sponsored "Hot Spot" crime prevention program is located. "I don't just deal with enforcement, but prevention."

Police spokesman Sgt. Morris Carroll credits the department's ability to design programs to target the county's crime. "We are going to continue doing what we are doing," Carroll said.

He said the department also will look at changing people's perception of crime by meeting with communities. Although communities are safer, he said, "A few high-profile incidents have skewed the perception."

But Howard County State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon says fewer crimes don't necessarily mean the county is safer.

"Although that's nice that the numbers are falling, it doesn't matter a hill of beans to people when they have a high level of violence in their communities," said McLendon. "People's perception isn't driven by statistics; it's driven by what is happening next to their homes."

McLendon says her office sees criminals -- including juveniles -- using weapons more often, and juveniles committing crimes at an earlier age.

"The numbers don't tell the whole story," she said.

While other violent crimes decreased, homicides increased from one in 1997 to six in 1998. Rapes jumped from 33 in 1997 to 41 in 1998.

Carroll said those increases were difficult to evaluate because there were so few total incidents. He said that the homicides and rapes are usually committed by people the victims know. Of the six homicides last year, three were domestic-related.

McLendon, noting that there were five homicides in 1996, said, "It looks like 1997 was a blip."

Carroll said the department has tried to address potential increases in domestic-related incidents by referring those calling to appropriate agencies. "We are trying to provide them more resource numbers," he said.

Officials who deal with domestic issues daily said more work is needed to encourage victims to report crimes.

"You really don't know if there is any increase in crime or more reporting," said Cheryl DePetro, executive director of the Sexual Trauma, Treatment, Advocacy and Recovery Center Inc. DePetro said STTAR treated 92 women and men who were raped in 1998. Some victims don't report the crime to police, she said.

Carroll said the department also will focus on catching criminals committing nuisance crimes, such as loitering, disorderly conduct and vandalism, by increasing patrols where residents are reporting the incidents. Doing so will eventually reduce bigger crimes, he said.

"People who are committing nuisance crimes are committing violent crimes," he said.

Earl Jones, who participates in Oakland Mills' community policing program, says the Police Department is on the right track, and the rest is up to residents.

"What concerns me is the lack of education people around here have about crime. Just because you live in Columbia or in the suburbs doesn't mean you're safe," Jones said. "That's silly."

Pub Date: 2/11/99

A chart accompanying a story yesterday about crime in Howard County included inaccurate information for motor vehicle thefts and other thefts.Crimes in both categories decreased in 1998. There were 5,428 thefts in 1998 compared with 6,449 in 1997. Motor vehicle thefts numbered 610 in 1998, compared with 748 in 1997. The Sun regrets the error.
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