Tale of Two Counties: A Dangerous Difference
By Michael D. Shear and Brooke A. Masters
Two decades ago, the chances of becoming the victim of a violent crime in Fairfax and Montgomery were just about equal.
That's no longer true.
Though the counties share a reputation for top-notch public schools, high family incomes and peaceful suburban cul-de-sacs, the violent crime rate in Montgomery is now more than twice as high as it is in Fairfax.
From 1977 to 1997, Fairfax's rate of violent crime fell 36 percent, according to a Washington Post analysis. Meanwhile, Montgomery like most area suburbs became statistically more dangerous. Its rate rose 43 percent.
The rate of violent crime is defined as the combined numbers of homicides, rapes, robberies and serious assaults in relation to the population. Even Bethesda, Montgomery's lowest-crime district, has a higher rate than most parts of Fairfax. And a gap shows up in property crime, too. Today, Montgomery residents are more than twice as likely to be burglarized.
The difference should be kept in perspective: The two counties have crime rates below the average for U.S. suburbs, and both have significantly less violent crime than the District.
But for police and public officials accustomed to citing the similarities between Washington's two largest and richest suburbs, the disparity in crime rates has proved something of a puzzle.
"It's inexplicable," said Fairfax County Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon). "We have compared ourselves for years in terms of what we pay our teachers, our police. We use each other as a gauge of how well are we doing. I'm astounded."
Still, police, other officials and criminologists say there are differences that may help explain why Montgomery has more crime:
Few physical barriers separate Montgomery from its higher-crime neighbors, Prince George's County and the District. Montgomery has more poor neighborhoods, and people in the county, on average, live more closely together than do Fairfax residents a marker for increased risk of conflict.
Another difference could be the size and strategies of each county's police department. During the 1980s, Fairfax police added officers quickly while Montgomery's force failed to keep up with population growth and, according to police officials, failed to take advantage of new technology.
Shown the crime statistics, Montgomery officials suggest another possible explanation that Fairfax could be using a stricter definition of aggravated assault so that fewer attacks meet the threshold. Fairfax police say that is possible, but criminologists who also reviewed the data at the request of The Post say such variance in crime definitions could not account for the large gap in crime rates.
In a January poll conducted for The Post by Greater Washington Consumer Research Inc., four out of 10 Montgomery residents said there is a place within a mile of their home where they would be afraid to walk at night. In Fairfax, three of 10 respondents felt that way. More than half of Montgomery residents said home burglary is a serious problem in the county, versus 41 percent in Fairfax.
The Post analyzed FBI statistics for serious crimes reported in Fairfax and Montgomery between 1977 and 1997. Crimes reported in Rockville, Gaithersburg and Fairfax City, which have their own police departments, also were included.
The analysis found that in 1997, there were about 11 violent crimes for every 10,000 residents in Fairfax, compared with 28 violent crimes in Montgomery. In 1996, the last year for which figures are available, the District had 247 violent crimes for every 10,000 residents.
"We're somewhat surprised at the variance," said Montgomery police Maj. Joe Price. "They may have one heck of a system there that we all want to copy."
There is nothing obvious in the makeup of the two counties that would explain the difference in crime rates.
Montgomery, on the District's northwest border, and Fairfax, located west of Washington, are separated by the Potomac River and have long been friendly and rapidly growing rivals. Twenty years ago, both counties had about half a million residents. Fairfax now has about 914,000 people and Montgomery about 827,000.
Each is now its state's most-populous jurisdiction and boasts exclusive neighborhoods that are home to many of the region's power brokers. Both counties rank among the richest 20 in the nation, and each has a poverty rate of about 6 percent, according to 1993 estimates, the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The two have competed aggressively to lure cutting-edge industries. Fairfax is nurturing a reputation as a home for high-tech software companies, while Montgomery has drawn some of the country's major biotechnology firms. In 1996, there were about 35,000 businesses in Fairfax and about 33,000 in Montgomery, according to the Claritas marketing research company.
In recent years, both counties have become more racially diverse. Minorities account for a slightly larger share of Montgomery's population, but Fairfax is receiving national attention as a magnet for immigrants, and some elementary school hallways ring with voices in dozens of languages.
Some criminologists believe the crime rate in a city or county is linked to the proportion of the population that is between ages 15 and 24 the group most likely to commit crimes. But there's no difference there either; during the last two decades, the proportion of young people in Fairfax and Montgomery has been almost identical and has declined at about the same pace.
One thing that clearly differentiates the two counties is geography.
About 20 percent of those arrested in Montgomery live in Washington or Prince George's County, according to police. Authorities say that reflects the ease of crossing the border, and that many Montgomery residents have close social and economic ties to neighboring higher-crime areas.
Fairfax police don't track where their criminals live, but say most of their crime is home grown. The county is buffered by distance and the Potomac River from the District and Prince George's, where violent crime has risen 43 percent and 68 percent, respectively, since 1977. Fairfax shares borders with Alexandria, where the violent crime rate has fallen by 23 percent in that time, and with Arlington, where violent crime has risen only slightly.
"If you're intending to commit a crime coming out of the District, it's a heck of a lot easier to get into Montgomery County and get back to home base," said E. Blaine Liner, an analyst from the Urban Institute who oversees its law and behavior program.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company