A spate of armed holdups in Waldorf neighborhoods and businesses has caused Charles County robbery statistics to increase for the third time in as many years, according to sheriff's officials and preliminary 2002 statistics.
Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30 this year, there were 122 robberies in the county, the sheriff's office said. That's only 12 fewer than in all of 2001, and only six fewer than in 2000, according to Maryland State Police statistics.
Factoring in an average number of robberies during the last two months, officials acknowledged, probably means the county's robbery statistics already have eclipsed last year's mark.
With the approach of the holiday season -- a time of year when robberies usually increase -- the number is likely to spike even higher in the next 35 days, sheriff's officials said.
"It's a combination of business and neighborhood robberies," said Capt. Joseph C. Montminy of the sheriff's office. "Both of them are going to be very difficult for us to do anything about."
The number of robberies has increased every year in Charles County since 1999, when the figures dropped from 135 to 124.
Crime statisticians consider robberies, along with homicides, to be a key indicator of the direction of crime is taking in a community. So far this year, there have been only five homicides, compared with nine in 2001.
To explain the recent increase, Montminy cited the county's growth and its proximity to Prince George's County.
The neighborhood robberies tend to be clustered in Waldorf and St. Charles, Montminy said.
For instance, the most recent robbery the sheriff's office reported in official releases happened on Nov. 6 on Rooks Head Place, a quiet street in Wakefield. Three teenagers were accosted by five men armed with handguns about 7:25 p.m. and robbed of clothing, property and money, sheriff's officials said.
Just 40 minutes earlier, a 32-year-old woman was walking to her home on Barnswallow Place in Westlake when two men, one of whom implied he had a gun, took her purse, sheriff's officials said.
Residents say they have noticed the increase in incidents. Robert R. Castro, a Waldorf lawyer who lives in Wakefield, said he is moving to Anne Arundel County to escape Charles's growing crime. In the past year, three shootings and several robberies have occurred in his neighborhood.
"I don't have to look at statistics to know it's getting worse," said Castro, who, as a criminal defense lawyer, represents some of the people causing the increase. "We have a 3-year-old and a 5-month-old, and we want to get out of the county before they start school. I'm getting run out of my own county."
In response to the increase in robberies, the sheriff's office patrol division has zeroed in on four Waldorf neighborhoods that crime analysts say are hotbeds for such incidents. Officials said more patrols can be expected in the neighborhoods of St. Charles east of Route 301 and the Holly Station area; in the more business-oriented part of Pinefield; and in the residential and commercial areas of Westlake.
Montminy said the patrols will feature one officer in a marked car, as opposed to the partner system that most special operations have, to maximize the number of officers in the community. He also said there would be covert intelligence operations.
"If we have information on one person, and we have to follow that person from the time he gets up in the morning, then we'll do that," Montminy said.
In commercial areas, some officers will begin special foot patrols at strip malls where stores and citizens have been targeted before.
The sheriff's office has given businesses surveillance equipment tips on how to best capture the images of robbers.
In addition, officers who complete paperwork in their cars have been urged to do so in the parking lots of businesses, to increase police visibility, Montminy said.
"We're trying to do more with less," Montminy said.
Many of the robberies, though, may be hard to prevent.
"We can't be everywhere at once," Montminy said.