EVEN AS THE homicide rate dips in the greater Washington area, Prince George's County is in the grip of a staggering epidemic of murder. In a sharp jump from last year, the county registered the year's 100th killing over the weekend, a bleak milestone that illuminated a broader breakdown in public safety and law and order on the eastern doorstep of the nation's capital. Prince George's threatens to displace the District as the region's murder capital. In the face of the county's rising mayhem, Police Chief Melvin C. High, backed by County Executive Jack B. Johnson, dodges any hint of accountability; instead, he points the finger at rank-and-file cops, calling them, nearly in so many words, a bunch of good-for-nothing slackers. That ought to do wonders for officers' morale as they confront the worst surge of violence in memory.
It is becoming increasingly clear that important parts of the High-Johnson crime-fighting strategy are failing. Amid great fanfare, they unveiled so-called community-oriented policing programs in major parts of the county last year, a "back-to-basics" approach designed to put officers in closer contact with residents to help cut crime. From the outset, though, the police union warned that the force, severely understaffed for years, lacked the manpower to implement the strategy, which entailed assigning officers responsibility for districts that are too large to monitor effectively. "It's as though they've put this beautiful pie on the Thanksgiving table. But when you cut into it, there's no filling," Percy Alston, now the police union president, said in November 2003.
From all indications, Mr. Alston was right. Among major crime categories, year-to-date statistics reflect spiraling violence: murders have increased 25 percent from last year's already high level; robberies have more than doubled; carjackings have risen by 45 percent, and rapes are up by 22 percent. Police response times in the county are terrible, and residents of notoriously dangerous neighborhoods complain that the cops are nowhere to be seen. In a particularly bad trend, the number of arrests made by county police fell nearly 50 percent between 2002 and last year, even as murders and some other crimes were soaring. At the same time, the number of homicides has declined this year in virtually all of the county's Maryland neighbors and in the District. Even in Baltimore, the nation's big-city murder capital in 2004, killings are off slightly compared to last year.
The county's status quo is not working. The answer from Messrs. Johnson and High -- standing by their failing strategy and blaming everything on underlings -- is as foolish as it is wrong. Law enforcement insiders in Prince George's say the county's detectives, who handle the most serious crimes, are hardworking and professional. Mr. Johnson has promised to hire more officers, but his program is too little too late, and some of the county's most experienced officers are leaving. The possible causes of rising crime in Prince George's -- gentrification in the District pushing out residents from high-crime areas, rising gang activity and drug commerce -- are complex and varied, but almost certainly they include a misguided approach to policing. Unless that approach is overhauled, Prince George's will continue to suffer, as will the county's ambitions to revitalize its sluggish economy.