The complaints and anecdotes had been trickling in for years. The reputation was there. But it took a little experiment for the Howard County police to confirm that a small sliver of Columbia had developed into something unanticipated by longtime residents of the outlying suburb.
Using a map, crime analysts placed the point of a compass on the Harper's Choice Shopping Center near the center of Columbia, then drew a circle with a half-mile radius around it. Next, they studied crime patterns within this small geographical area, which comprises less than a third of Harper's Choice, one of 10 villages that make up Columbia.
It turned out that all of the robbery complaints to police in 1998 in Harper's Choice occurred in that one area. So did all the rape complaints, 95 percent of the drug-related complaints and 94 percent of the theft complaints. It had more drug complaints than any other entire village, in several cases three times as many.
Though its crime levels are a fraction of those in impoverished areas of the District or Baltimore, the area of Harper's Choice has been deemed a crime "hot spot" by Howard County officials.
It is evidence that, despite its meticulously planned origins and suburban character, Columbia is not immune to the problems that have affected other cities.
The centers of the older parts of Columbia are taking on the characteristics, if slightly, of the inner-city areas of larger cities, according to academics, Columbia residents, Howard County police, and local politicians and activists. With this has come fear, they said.
"Columbia is not the ideal city like its founders wanted it to be," said the Rev. Randy Reinhardt, pastor of Covenant Community Church in Harper's Choice and a 20-year resident. "You would see more and more people hanging out in Harper's Choice whose intentions didn't seem the best."
Next month, Howard County police will ask Lt. Gov. Kathleen Townsend Kennedy (D) for a Hot Spot Communities Initiative grant to beef up police and prosecutions in the area, and provide services for at-risk youth and substance abusers. One Columbia area already has been designated a crime hot spot: the center of Long Reach village, another of Columbia's older communities.
Most of those interviewed said the factor driving these inner city-like developments is Columbia's design itself. James W. Rouse, the community's founder, decided that high-density, low-income housing should be clustered near the village centers, where stores, community meeting halls and recreation facilities are located. That way, residents without cars could walk to them.
The proposed Harper's Choice hot spot has close to 250 units of subsidized housing, just under a sixth of all low-income housing in Columbia, according to a recent Harper's Choice village board study. Most units are concentrated in apartment and town house complexes such as Fenland Field, Waverly Winds, Fall River Terrace and the largest, Harper House.
This population density around the older village centers, combined with a relative abundance of public spaces--yards in front of housing complexes, the community center, parking lots--means that people gather there, said police officers, residents and community activists. And that, in turn, increases the likelihood of crime, they said.
"For all the good reasons that Jim Rouse put the village centers where they are, so people could meet and talk, they also can be a magnet for crime," said Howard County State's Attorney Marna McLendon. "You have the hanging around at the village center and the high-density housing, the factors are there."
Vicky Green, 34, who lives in a Waverly Winds town house with her husband and six children, said the prevalence of people gathered in her complex's parking lot gets particularly menacing in the evenings, especially on weekends.
"On a Friday night, there would be two dozen teenagers hanging out, playing craps, doing drugs. You could smell the [marijuana]. There are fights, and usually screaming," she said. "This year it has been worse."
Similar conditions existed in Long Reach, Howard County's only current area designated as a crime hot spot, according to the police officer who is paid by the hot spot grant to police the area intensely.
"People tend to hang out there. A lot of kids are unsupervised late at night. Sometimes there's problems," said Officer Lisa Myers. "Columbia is really like a city."
Myers says the Long Reach hot spot, which started in 1997 with a grant of $122,000, has been a success. The hot spot is only a few square blocks--much smaller than the one proposed for Harper's Choice. Myers works out of a small office in the village center, doing regular police work but also acting as a sort of mediator, helping to resolve disputes between neighbors and sorting out domestic conflicts. Though crime figures and police complaint statistics are not available to document the effect of the hot spot designation, Myers said proof can be seen on the street.
"A lot of people who were hanging around corners aren't doing it anymore," she said.
The same problem--people hanging around--also scares off potential shoppers at Harper's Choice, police and merchants said. Such a fear of crime, in addition to crime itself, can be a justification for a hot spot, according to the state's criteria. Mark McCoy, owner of Parcel Plus in the Harper's Choice Shopping Center, said that even people who live close by shop elsewhere because of fear.
"People hear things, they hear rumors and get afraid to do business here," he said.
McCoy and several other Harper's Choice business owners were part of the community coalition that pushed for a hot spot grant, joining with village politicians and activists.
A string of shootings in Harper's Choice, including two shootings in a 24-hour period last September, motivated them. On Thursday, Maurice Green, 22, of Baltimore was found guilty of assault and robbery in the second of the shootings. The suspect in the first shooting was acquitted of all charges in March.
Neil Frock, a member of the Harper's Choice village board, was the spark that got the hot spot process moving. He went to the Howard County police, who have long considered the center of Harper's Choice to be one of their busiest locations, to press them to apply for the designation.
"The crime that is occurring seems to be more severe," he said.
If the Harper's Choice hot spot is approved, it would join 36 others, including some of Maryland's roughest urban areas, such as Cherry Hill in south Baltimore, and a few not-so-urban locales such as Grantsville in Garrett County. Researchers at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan Washington-based think tank, and the University of Maryland will evaluate the entire hot spot program next year.
One Howard County leader does not think central Harper's Choice has deteriorated anywhere near some of the state's other hot spots but understands why people in the rest of Columbia might feel that way.
"It's not that bad. I go there all the time to shop," said Charles I. Ecker, who was county executive from 1990 to 1998. "But I realize perception is a powerful thing. Crimes happen there and word gets out, I guess."