St. Mary's County posted the most dramatic reduction in serious crime in Maryland in 2001, bucking a state and regional trend of crimes rates slowly rising, according to state statistics.

The rate that serious crimes such as murder, rape, assault, robbery, burglary and theft occurred in St. Mary's in 2001 decreased by 14.9 percent compared with 2000, according to the most recent Uniform Crime Report issued by the Maryland State Police. The biggest drops came in thefts, which declined 23.4 percent, and robberies, which declined 47.8 percent.

The decrease came as crime was rising faster than population growth from 2000 to 2001 in Charles and Calvert counties. In Charles, the rate of serious crimes went up 2.7 percent while population increased only 1.5 percent; serious crimes went up 2.4 percent in Calvert, the population only 1.5 percent.

Across Maryland, the rate of serious crime increased by 2.5 percent. The crime rate represents the number of incidents reported per 100,000 residents.

St. Mary's officials attributed the decrease, in part, to aggressive enforcement of drug laws. Though drug arrests actually went down in the county in 2001, investigations commander Lt. Lyle E. Long said detectives are focusing more on major drug dealers and conducting investigations that take more time and result in fewer arrests.

Such a probe led to the arrest last spring of Anthony E. Brown, 37, a Virginia man who went on trial in St. Mary's for allegedly dealing large quantities of cocaine, Long said. A jury found him guilty of three drug counts, and he faces at least 40 years in prison.

"He's done. He's off the streets," Long said. "Detectives are going several levels up to get the dealers. More time and emphasis is put on locking up a substantial dealer than a street roach."

St. Mary's also experienced a substantial increase in aggravated assaults and small rises in burglaries and rapes.

In Charles County, the statistics showed an increase in every category of serious crime. The most significant were car thefts (7.4 percent) and aggravated assaults (12 percent).

Charles Sheriff Frederick E. Davis said the rise in car thefts stemmed mostly from organized groups that were operating in Waldorf. Several arrests were made, Davis said.

Other problems outlined in the statistics persist in 2003. The number of robberies last year was on target to break the record of 135 set in 2001.

A special unit "is looking at it very closely," Davis said. "We've already made some arrests on it."

There was some good news in the report for Charles. Sheriff's officers solved 29 percent of serious crimes in 2001, compared with 27 percent in 2000. It is still the lowest case closure rate in Southern Maryland.

A narcotics unit strategy, similar to the one in St. Mary's that focuses resources on drug dealers and not users, appeared to pay off with a 26.4 percent increase in distribution arrests.

"This is a more strategic way to operate, and we're confident in the trickle-down effect, that it's going to make drugs less and less accessible and reduce both distribution and possession violations," said Capt. Samuel N. Graves, commander of criminal investigations.

The 2.4 percent serious crime increase in Calvert was fueled by a jump in thefts, especially by a series of unsolved cases that spring, said Lt. Homer Rich, commander of the Prince Frederick Barrack of the state police. Calvert saw slight decreases in car thefts and burglaries, and small rises in robberies, assaults and rapes.

In 2001, the 40-some troopers at the Prince Frederick Barrack saw their share of Calvert's crime-fighting duties increase by 11.3 percent, a hallmark of the turmoil the sheriff's office went through that year as Sheriff Vonzell R. Ward resigned and the Board of County Commissioners attempted to create a county police department.

"That did make work slow down," said one deputy who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We were just responding to stuff we had to respond to."