Baltimore County Residents Concerned Over Rise In Violent Crime

Shanel Diggs has been a regular shopper at the nearby Owings Mills Target. But for now, the New Town woman says, she plans to shop at a different location.

Patrons at the store on Reisterstown Road were sent running and screaming last Monday when, police say, two men entered the store and shot at another man.

“I would never imagine anything like that happening in New Town,” said Diggs, 39.

The suspected victim was not hit and no one else was injured, but the shooting has shaken the community.

“I find it utterly incredible and shameful that somebody would pull a gun in Target,” said County Councilman Julian Jones, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Owings Mills.

Violent crime in Baltimore County has risen. Homicides remained flat at 35 in each of the last two years, but overall violent crime increased 14.5 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to the latest available police department data. That followed a 2.8 percent decrease in such crime from 2015 to 2016.

The number of total crimes reported countywide rose 3.9 percent from 2016 to 2017. But most of the county police department’s 10 precincts reported much greater increases in serious violent crimes, which include aggravated assault, robbery and rape.

It is unclear whether the trend has continued into 2018. The Baltimore County Police Department declined to provide The Baltimore Sun with crime figures from this year, saying the data is preliminary.

The Target shooting occurred in the Franklin precinct, which reported nearly 20 percent more violent crimes in 2017. But it was far from the only area of the county to experience an uptick last year. All but one precinct had increases. The greatest increase was in Essex, where reports jumped 32.3 percent. Only the Wilkens precinct, in the southwest corner of the county, had a decrease in violent crime (6.7 percent).

Police believe drugs helped drive the increases.

“One thing we’ve seen is the result of the opioid epidemic in our area,” Cpl. Shawn Vinson said.

In the first nine months of last year, the latest data available from state health officials, Baltimore County had 238 opioid-related deaths, the second-most in Maryland, after Baltimore City.

Vinson said police are also concerned about crimes committed by juveniles, and are stepping up efforts to engage youth with sports clinics and other activities. He said statistics on juvenile crime were unavailable.

A spokeswoman for County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said he was not available to comment on crime trends, and referred questions to the police department.

Kamenetz, a Democrat, is running for governor. In a statement, he said: “Like everyone else, we are dealing with issues of juvenile crime and ramifications of the opioid crisis. Our police and public health officials are responding directly to those issues.”

While violent crime increased, property crime in the county fell 0.6 percent from 2016 to 2017. Burglaries were down 15 percent, and motor vehicle thefts decreased by about 2 percent.

Some crimes in recent months have drawn a large community response. Michele Gipson, president of the homeowners association for the Townhomes at the Pointe I in New Town, said about 300 people attended a meeting in January to discuss crime. Residents were upset after the armed robberies of Beauty 2U and China Wok in December.

A suspect has been arrested, charged and released on recognizance.

“Everybody was in an uproar,” she said.

On Thursday night, Gipson said, a neighbor was frantic after witnessing an armed robbery at a gas station. Police say a man with a handgun entered the Sunoco in the 9300 block of Lakeside Boulevard and demanded cash.

Gipson said she understood her neighbor’s fear. She was inside a Starbucks in December 2016 that was robbed at gunpoint, an experience that left her shaken.

“The police, they always say it’s worse in other communities,” Gipson said. “I’ll be honest, that irritates me. … It’s not acceptable in our community.”

More than 500 people packed a meeting with police at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium in January to discuss a string of burglaries in Pikesville, Franklin, Cockeysville and Towson that began in October. A few days later, police charged three men from Georgia, New Jersey and North Carolina with multiple counts of first-degree burglary.

Crime is always a topic of conversation at community meetings, said Aaron Von Moore Sr., president of the Lyons Manor Homeowners Association in Owings Mills. His neighborhood is preparing to install surveillance cameras at two intersections.

Moore said he keeps up with local crime by subscribing to alerts from a local crime website.

“The crimes are primarily outside of our neighborhood,” he said, but “crime is right around us.”

In a recent union bulletin, the Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 4 cited “increasing crime rates” in criticizing Police Chief Terry Sheridan, saying his tenure has been “very disruptive” with dozens of command changes since he took over in January 2017.

“I know this disruption is taking its toll on the membership,” union President Cole Weston wrote in the February newsletter.

Kamenetz chose Sheridan to replace Jim Johnson, who spent more than a decade at the department’s helm. Sheridan had served as county police chief from 1996 until 2007.

David Rose, the second vice president for the county FOP, said the chief has stopped providing information to the union that it used to get under Johnson.

“There was an open flow of communication with Johnson,” Rose said. “There’s almost no communication with Sheridan.”

Sheridan declined to be interviewed. Vinson said the chief would not comment on the union’s clams.

County Council members met with Sheridan at the end of January to discuss crime. Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat, said she requested the meeting because she felt she kept hearing about “more severe crimes” in her district.

She was especially disturbed by the shooting death of 13-year-old Iyanna Watkins, who was sitting with a group of people behind a Middle River 7-Eleven last summer. Police said two people opened fire on the group, killing the girl and wounding two men.

In the months before the meeting, Bevins said, “things seemed intense,” she said. “Maybe it was the severity of the crimes.”

Two precincts on the county’s east side, where Bevins lives, had the largest number of total crimes last year: Essex, with 9,336 incidents, a 7.9 percent increase from 2016, and Dundalk, with 8,190 incidents, a 2.3 percent decrease).

On the other side of the county, state Del. Charles Sydnor organized a meeting in December to discuss crime in the Woodlawn area.

“For whatever reason, there’s this perception that the community on that side of town is unsafe,” Sydnor said.

Sydnor said residents discussed opioids and juvenile services. He said fighting crime is not just about police work, but also ensuring that communities have support.

“You’ve got to make sure the resources are there,” said Sydnor, a Democrat. “It’s not always about law enforcement.”

Violent crimes in Baltimore County

2012: 4,146

2013: 4,184

2014: 4,024

2015: 4,539

2016: 4,411

2017: 5,052

Violent crimes include aggravated assaults, robberies, rapes and homicide.

Source: Baltimore County Police Department

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