IN PRINCE GEORGE'S County these days, it seems that anyone can get shot -- even the county's top prosecutor. Glenn F. Ivey, state's attorney in Prince George's and a rising star of Maryland's Democratic Party, was doing nothing more perilous than standing in line for an ice cream on a sweltering afternoon on the last Saturday in August when a drive-by shooter armed with a pellet gun fired in his direction, apparently at random. One pellet hit Mr. Ivey in the arm, drawing blood. His companion, former Maryland delegate Rushern L. Baker III, was struck lightly in the leg.
Neither man was seriously hurt. But the shooting at the Tasty Creme ice cream shop in District Heights dramatized a recent crime spree, including nine murders in the week ending last Tuesday, plus another one Sunday night, that lifted the county's homicide numbers so far this year to nearly their highest annualized rate in a decade. Ninety-six people were murdered in the county through Sept. 1, about 10 more than during the same period last year. Nearly as unsettling, the authorities have made few arrests in the most recent killings and say they have few promising leads. The police department points out that the overall crime rate is down slightly from 2003, but it acknowledges by its actions that the spike in murders is cause for alarm; in the aftermath of the latest bloodshed, police commanders said they would increase the presence of undercover detectives and anti-drug officers around high-crime neighborhoods, nightclubs and other hot spots. Jeffrey Cox, the deputy chief, told The Post's Jamie Stockwell that his goal is to beef up what he called "proactive policing" and manpower on the streets by increasing overtime hours for police on patrol.
That makes sense, but it also misses the point. A similar crime-fighting plan, dubbed "Operation Safe Corridors," was unveiled by Prince George's police in mid-June, together with other initiatives to interdict drug traffic, crack down on gang violence and halt a surge in car thefts. The main problem in Prince George's is not a misallocation of police resources or stinginess in overtime pay for patrol officers; it's that there are not enough police for a sprawling, partly urban county of 840,000 residents whose homegrown crime problems have been augmented by violence bleeding in from the District. The county executive, Jack B. Johnson (D), trumpets his goal of nudging the size of the force up toward its full authorized strength of 1,420 officers, from the current level of about 1,280. But the authorized level is antiquated and inadequate, and even if it is reached the county police force will still be badly undermanned. Consider police staffing levels in Prince George's and Baltimore counties, which are similar in population and area. Even though Prince George's has more crime and more dense urban neighborhoods than Baltimore County, it has about 500 fewer police officers.
Mr. Ivey wants additional after-school programs for teenagers in the county's roughest neighborhoods, to keep them focused on constructive activities and on building a future that does not include prison. He would also expand job opportunities for ex-offenders and add an educational component to informal youth basketball leagues. Those are smart and timely initiatives. But Mr. Ivey understands as well as anyone that the core challenge is hiring more cops on the beat. After Mr. Ivey was shot more than a week ago, the officer who responded told him that he had been alone on patrol the previous Friday night in District Heights. If Prince George's is to confront its homicide problem, one police officer in a high-crime urban area on a weekend night simply doesn't cut it.