A 17-year-old boy was killed and a man was injured in two separate downtown Towson shootings in the space of eight days, sparking fears that big-city crime was taking root in the rapidly growing heart of the suburb north of Baltimore.
However, new data from the Baltimore County Police Department shows crime in downtown Towson only rebounded last year to 2019 levels after a dip during the first two years of the coronavirus pandemic, when many businesses and retailers initially shut down.
The numbers come from a new effort by the county police to track crime in the downtown district, following public outcry after the string of violent crimes in February. Police defined the borders of central Towson for the first time to track the success of new strategies. The Baltimore Sun analyzed the data, which offers the first downtown-specific crime numbers, going back to 2019.
Overall crime in central Towson rose in 2022 to just above 2019 levels, and was up 29% over 2021.
The increase was driven by a surge in shoplifting, overwhelmingly in the area of the Towson Town Center mall, which pushed the number of property crimes up more than 40% from 2021′s total. Last year, drug offenses and other crimes against society jumped 35%, but crimes against people only ticked up 3%.
Assaults, however, rose faster than other crimes against people. Aggravated assaults, in which someone is seriously injured or could have been, surged 25% from 43 in 2021 to 54 last year. Simple assaults, which don’t involve a weapon or risk for serious injury, climbed from 269 to 281. Last year’s totals for assaults rival those of 2019 — and so far, this year is on a similar pace.
Some other serious offenses, including robbery and auto theft, reached four-year highs in 2022, though property crimes overall decreased slightly last year compared with 2019.
The spate of violence in February brought renewed focus on Towson crime. The Feb. 20 fatal shooting of the 17-year-old boy between the mall and the movie theater on Joppa Road followed the nonfatal shooting Feb. 12, as well as a stabbing the same day and the Feb. 2 rape at gunpoint of three women.
Tracking downtown Towson crime
A spate of high-profile incidents in February, including downtown Towson's second homicide* and fourth nonfatal shooting+ in just over a year, has stoked concerns about crime in the district. Longer-term data shows overall crime climbing slightly above pre-pandemic levels, with some deviations among some more serious offenses.Downtown Towson recorded no homicides from 2019 to 2021 and one in 2022. Aggravated assaults include nonfatal shootings.
Last year, there was one homicide in downtown Towson, after none were reported in the area from 2019 to 2021.
Despite the high-profile crimes reported in February, overall crime in downtown Towson through March 12 of this year was down 11% compared with the same period for 2022. This year’s numbers are tracking with 2019. Even with spikes in shoplifting and destruction of property, property crime is down. Crimes against people, however, are up.
In response to the data, Towson Chamber of Commerce President Nancy Hafford said Towson’s downtown population has grown after the construction of new apartment buildings, including The York on York Road and Avalon Towson on Joppa Road. Towson’s population was about 59,550 in 2020, according to the census.
The Baltimore County Council approved a grant March 24 of about $350,000 to the chamber to fund additional security guards in the downtown entertainment area, Hafford said. She said five unarmed guards and a supervisor were to begin patrolling March 31.
Hafford said the grant will also pay for additional cameras in Towson’s back alleys and parking lots.
“There haven’t been any issues since back in February,” Hafford said Thursday of recent crime.
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said in February that the county would pursue grants for a new license plate reader and to add cameras in the downtown area in response to recent incidents. County police spokesperson Joy Stewart said the department has started the procurement process to obtain additional license plate readers for central Towson.
Maj. Deanna Chemelli, commander of the Central Patrol Division that covers downtown Towson, said the police department has used data to identify the days and times when an increased police presence would be most beneficial in the area, and deployed officers accordingly. This has more than doubled the officer presence in central Towson.
“What you really can’t put a number on is the public’s confidence in us,” Chemelli said. “Our primary goal is not for you to just be safe in central Towson, but more importantly, for you to feel safe.”
Danita Tolson, president of the Baltimore County NAACP, questioned why this is the first time the police department has measured and released data specifically for downtown Towson.
Tolson said the department should reach out to the community, especially young people, to determine how residents are experiencing crime.
“You can’t interpret ‘what I feel’ as being safe,” Tolson said. “Has anybody sat down with some of the youth? Has anybody engaged the youth to see, what does that look like to them, to reduce some of the crime?”
The mall, which has a requirement on weekend nights for adult chaperones, is a popular destination for teenagers.
Chemelli said Baltimore County Police officers work closely with the Towson Town Center management and the mall’s private security to deal with criminal issues. Police arrested eight people earlier this year after what they described as a “large and unruly crowd” caused property damage near the mall.
According to The Sun’s analysis, offenses recorded in the mall area last year represented about 40% of the crimes in downtown Towson. In 2022, that meant 87% of shoplifting offenses, nearly half of all robberies and more than a third of burglaries downtown were reported in the mall retail zone.
The mall area also saw about one in every four aggravated assaults in downtown Towson and about 16% of simple assaults last year, according to the police data.
Lindsay Kahn, a spokesperson for mall owner Brookfield Properties, said the mall has a “state-of-the-art” security program across the property, including 24/7 security guards, parking lot surveillance, closed-circuit TV monitoring, and a partnership with county police that includes off-duty officers on-site.
The mall requires kids under 18 to be accompanied by a “parent or supervising adult” 21 or older after 4 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, a policy recently extended to Brookfield Properties’ other Baltimore-area mall, The Mall in Columbia, after an uptick in fights and disruptions by teens there.
“We strive every day to ensure that Towson Town Center is a safe, peaceful destination within this community,” Kahn said in a statement.
Chemelli said county police don’t routinely patrol the mall because it hires its own security, but off-duty officers wear their Baltimore County Police uniforms when they moonlight there.
At a budget town hall Olszewski hosted in February, longtime Towson resident David Riley told attendees to support downtown businesses despite crime and “to be responsible on social media.”
“Don’t hide with your head under the covers. You’ve got to go out,” Riley said.
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Since February, county officials and business owners say they have noticed more police downtown at night.
“That has definitely helped things,” said Councilman Mike Ertel, a Democrat who represents Towson. “We’re definitely seeing a change in some of the lawlessness,” including speeding cars and loitering.
Brian Recher, owner of the Towson Tavern, the Rec Room, and the Recher Theater, attributes recent incidents to Towson’s growth. On busy nights, about 14 security guards keep watch at his businesses.
“The powers that be of Towson realize this and they’re taking the proper steps to alleviate this issue. I know from talking to my customers, they see the police presence and it makes them feel safer,” Recher said.
Towson Green resident James Pizzuro, 31, has been enjoying downtown Towson’s nightlife since he moved there last year from Arlington, Virginia. Having been raised in the suburbs, Pizzuro was unsurprised that young people flock to the Towson Town Center.
“Kids like malls,” said Pizzuro, adding that he’s mostly unconcerned about his safety downtown.
“I’m not getting the vibe that it’s dire,” he said of recent Towson crime.