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As Suburbia Surges, Violence Tags Along

The Vulnerable Suburbs
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In This Series
  • As Suburbia Surges, Violence Tags Along
  • About the crime data


  • Two Counties: A Dangerous Difference
  • On-the-Spot Policing Builds Ties in Culmore
  • Crime Makes Silver Spring Stores a Tough Sell

  • First of two articles

    By Brooke A. Masters and Michael D. Shear
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Sunday, April 5, 1998; Page A1

    Though it has declined from its peak in the early 1990s, violent crime has become a far more common threat in most of the Washington suburbs than it was 20 years ago, a Washington Post analysis shows.

    Since the late 1970s, the combined numbers of homicides, rapes, robberies and serious assaults have risen even faster than the population in 13 of 16 major suburbs.

    In some places on the outer rim of the metropolitan area, where sheriff's departments say they can't keep pace with rapid growth, the rate of violent crime has doubled. Formerly rural Charles County now has one of the area's highest rates.

    Recent years have brought some relief: a lull in the growth of crime in some places, actual declines in others. And the rate of violent crime in the suburbs does not approach that of the District, which is more than five times as high.

    But that is little comfort to most suburban police officials, politicians, business people and residents, who have seen crime in their communities become more serious over the years.

    Judy Melvin and Andy Carpenter on crime patrol
    Judy Melvin and Andy Carpenter discuss anticrime action while on patrol.
    (Ricard A. Carioti for The Washington Post)
    In rapidly developing Stafford County, 35 miles south of the District along Interstate 95, sheriff's deputies are responding more to violent crimes typical of urban areas.

    "I'm realistic enough to know that it's coming and that we can't stop it," said Capt. Charles Jett. "What we can do is look at others and see what's worked and what hasn't. We try to stay proactive."

    The Post's analysis is based on statistics collected by local police departments and reported to the FBI from 1977 through 1997. Comparisons are expressed as rates – the numbers of crimes per 10,000 residents – to take into account the suburbs' rapid population growth.

    Among the findings:

  • Murders undermine the sense of community safety but actually make up a tiny percentage of violent crime. People are far more likely to become victims of robbery or of aggravated assault. The assault rate in suburban Washington is 32 percent higher than it was two decades ago, and robbery rates have more than doubled in some counties.

  • Of Washington's major suburbs, only Fairfax and Howard counties and the city of Alexandria have bucked the overall trend, and have lower crime rates now than they did 20 years ago.

  • Maryland suburbs in the Washington area have, on average, higher violent crime rates than their counterparts in Virginia. In 1997, Montgomery had more than twice the violent crime rate of Fairfax, despite demographic similarities.

  • While outer suburbs remain safer overall than closer-in communities, violent crime is increasing there at a much faster pace. In Loudoun County, the rate of violent crime rose from six crimes per 10,000 residents in 1977 to 11 in 1997. The rate in St. Mary's County jumped from 23 to 41.

  • Prince George's County has the suburbs' highest rate of violent crime, but last year it also saw one of the region's largest drops: 19 percent. The homicide rate fell 42 percent, to the lowest level in 10 years.

    The very recent downturn in places such as Prince George's has raised hopes that the region is in the early stages of a historic decline in violent crime. But a similar dip in the 1980s turned out to be temporary.

    Growth in juvenile crime and a coming bulge in the youth population could bode ill. By 1996, 25 percent of those arrested for violent crimes in the Washington suburbs were juveniles, up from 17 percent in 1990.

    Criminologists warn that crime is a complicated phenomenon that responds to a web of social, economic and political factors, which in the Washington area include the great expansion and increasing density of the suburbs; growing pockets of poverty; and changes in family life and patterns of commerce.

    Jonathan P. Caulkins, who builds mathematical models at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University to study the spread of crime, says that even if police and politicians did everything right, criminal activity "is still going to go up and down" because of factors beyond their control.

    "We study crime like crazy and have oodles of theories, but in an objective sense, we don't really understand it," Caulkins said. "We don't have anywhere near the understanding of crime that we do of the behavior of subatomic particles."

    24-Hour Suburbs

    Twenty years ago, when many Washington suburbs were strictly bedroom communities, burglars were beckoned by the rows of vulnerable homes in quiet neighborhoods.

    By 1980 the burglary rate in the communities ringing the District hit an all-time high. But as commercial centers grew and evolved, the growing crime was robbery, a violent attack on a person or a business.

    By the 1980s, there were not only more bank branches, but also automated teller machines, dishing out cash at any hour. Over time, more copy shops and drugstores stayed open 24 hours, providing new reasons for people to be out late.

    These tempting targets also were more accessible, thanks in part to new and wider highways such as the Prince William Parkway and Route 5 in Charles County, which made it easier for criminals to move quickly in and out of an area. The robbery rate rose 54 percent in Prince William and 154 percent in Charles between 1977 and 1997.

    The rate of aggravated assault – defined as an attack meant to cause serious injury – rose even faster in many suburbs. One contributing factor was crowding and congestion; in Loudoun County, the assault rate rose 179 percent over two decades as once-rural communities absorbed 80,000 new residents. More established suburbs, like Montgomery County, also became denser as new housing developments and stores filled in vacant patches.

    "Anyone who has children knows you tend to be a little crazy when you're all on top of each other," said Sharon Cox, president of the Montgomery Council of PTAs.

    Reports of domestic violence – which account for a small but significant share of aggravated assaults – also increased as more police began treating such cases as crimes.

    Meanwhile, the overall suburban burglary rate tumbled 53 percent, and other thefts also declined. The proliferation of home and car alarms played a part, as well as the spread of neighborhood watch programs.

    Starting in the early 1980s, pawnshops had to furnish police with more detailed information about their inventory and clients. In the last seven years, such data have helped Montgomery police arrest more than 1,500 people peddling stolen merchandise.

    By the end of the 1980s, though, suburban police were battling crack cocaine, which created a new class of violent addict and turf battles between rival suppliers. The drug acted as "a magnet that was drawing criminals out of other activities ... because the profits are so good," said Andrew Karmen, a criminology professor at John Jay College in New York.

    Many heroin users also supported their addictions with crime. But crack produced a shorter high, sending addicts back to dealers more often and creating more chances for conflict. And some authorities believe that crack encouraged a shift from property crime to robbery because users needed money more quickly.

    "People want what you have and they'll take it in a second," said Joan Fredericks, of Falls Church, whose husband was shot and killed in a carjacking in a quiet Fairfax cul-de-sac in 1993. "Because of drugs, people's attitudes have changed. ... It's not enough to steal anymore. They'll take your life, too."

    Fredericks, 46, said she still suffers occasional sleepless nights. "It's so horrible being the person who is left behind," she said. "It constantly reminds you how vulnerable you are."

    In Prince William County, the robbery rate increased 127 percent from 1986 to 1993, the heyday of the crack trade. Meanwhile, the burglary rate fell 26 percent. "The crack epidemic came on us, like most jurisdictions, like a tidal wave," said Police Chief Charlie T. Deane.

    The wave also swept through parts of Prince George's County. A 1.6-square-mile section along Marlboro Pike near the District line became infamous for drugs and violence. In 1993, it was the scene of 115 robberies, 72 aggravated assaults and three homicides – including the death of 1-year-old Vania Zamba, who died in a fire set by five suspects trying to kill a witness to a shooting.

    "You'd see guys hanging on the street corner. You'd see prostitutes," said county police Cpl. William Steen, who patrols the beat, known to police as H4. "It was a sense of out-of-control. ... It was like the finger in the dike. Every time you turn around, there was another leak."

    Page Two | Printable Full Text

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