Thursday, January 8, 2009

Montgomery Faces 7.7% Increase in Major Crime - Washington Post

County Headed For Top Annual Jump in 17 Years

By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 7, 2009; B01

Montgomery County is on track for its largest year-over-year percentage jump in serious crime in 17 years, a trend driven by increases in home and car break-ins throughout the county, according to an analysis of data covering the first nine months of last year.

Statistics show a 7.7 percent increase compared with the same period in 2007 in "Part I" crime, a category that includes murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and auto theft. Law enforcement officials attribute the increase in part to the souring economy.

Thefts overall rose 10 percent, from 12,753 to 14,028. Thieves broke into cars and snapped up portable Global Positioning System devices, MP3 players and other items at a rate 21.4 percent higher than during the same period in 2007. Police estimate that more than one-fifth of victims of such crimes leave their car doors unlocked and that many other victims leave valuable items visible on their seats.

Burglaries, in which someone breaks into a home or building to steal, increased from 2,618 to 2,772 in the same nine months of 2007, or 5.9 percent. The biggest percentage jump, 21.1, was in the county's 5th Police District, which stretches from Germantown to more rural areas to the north and west.

Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said yesterday that he is concerned about the increases. "While not a crime of violence, home and business break-ins are serious business and can really make neighborhoods feel unsafe," he said.

Despite the increases, Montgomery is on track for a lower number of serious crimes than it had for much of the 1990s. After peaking in 1995, such crimes generally fell for the next nine years before creeping back up. Montgomery isn't expected to release statistics covering all of last year before March.

For the first nine months of last year, Montgomery also had increases in violent crimes, including a 10.1 percent jump in aggravated assaults, from 593 to 653. Homicides in the first nine months climbed from nine the year before to 13, rapes increased from 96 to 104 and robberies nudged up from 794 to 813.

In all of last year, there were 21 homicides, compared with 20 in 2007. The numbers exclude two fatal shootings by police officers last year and one the year before.

Montgomery's violent crime totals pale in comparison with those from the less populous jurisdictions to the south and east. In the first nine months of last year, the District recorded 142 homicides and 3,180 robberies, and Prince George's County had 65 homicides and 1,919 robberies in the first eight months.

Although Montgomery remains relatively safe, Assistant Police Chief Wayne Jerman said people shouldn't walk alone at night or wear MP3 players while jogging and should generally be alert and aware. "There are some very bad people out there who are going to pounce on an opportunity," he said.

For the first nine months of last year, Montgomery recorded 34,926 "Part II" crimes, a category that includes less serious offenses such as vandalism and disorderly conduct. That number represents a 0.2 percent drop from the same period in 2007.

Thefts were up in each of the county's six police districts in the first nine months, with the highest percentage increase -- 14.5 percent -- in the 1st District, which covers Rockville and Potomac. Thefts in the 2nd District, which includes Bethesda, climbed by the lowest amount, 4.2 percent.

Burglaries increased in all areas except the 3rd and 6th districts, which cover Silver Spring and Montgomery Village, respectively.

The 3rd District and the 4th, which covers Wheaton, accounted for 489 robberies, or 60 percent of those in the county. That represented a 19 percent jump.

Gary LaFree, a criminologist at the University of Maryland, said that when unemployment, inflation or poverty levels increase, there is at least a 70 percent chance that crime will also increase. "In general, when the economy goes down, crimes goes up," LaFree said.

Manger said the economy wouldn't cause an ordinarily law-abiding person to commit a crime. But, he said, for a certain segment of the population, crime presents a "realistic option" in tough times.

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