Opinion: How Safe is MoCo?
Statistics, context important in how the public views crime
Editor’s note: The views expressed in MoCo Politics are the writer’s and do not represent the staff of Bethesda Beat.
Crime has become a hot issue in Montgomery County. It has become especially volatile because it has been mixed with the controversial issue of illegal immigration, prompting protesters to
descend on the County Council building to speak out against crimes committed by unauthorized residents.
Counter-protesters and many elected officials equate this sentiment with racism, xenophobia and neo-Nazism. But opponents of unauthorized violent criminals claim that their presence has led to rising crime in Montgomery County. Are they right?
The Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention tracks seven types of crimes for each of the state’s 24 jurisdictions dating to 1975.
Murders, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults are classified as violent crimes. Breaking and entering, larceny thefts and motor vehicle thefts are classified as property crimes.
The office’s data does not include crimes against society, such as prostitution or drug crimes. Nevertheless, the data the office tracks is standardized across the state and goes back decades, making it a useful tool for analysis.
Below are MoCo’s average annual crime statistics over the three-year period of 2015-2017, the most recent years in the data set.
Note the dominance of robberies and aggravated assaults in driving the number of violent crimes and the dominance of larceny thefts in driving the number of property crimes. Larceny thefts alone accounted for three-quarters of all violent and property crimes in MoCo.
Below are MoCo’s average annual crime rates per 100,000 people over the three-year period of 2015-2017, along with comparisons to Maryland’s 23 other local jurisdictions.
MoCo ranks in the bottom tier of local jurisdictions for every category of violent and property crime except for rapes (in which it is 7th) and motor vehicle thefts (in which it is 12th). Only Calvert and Carroll counties have lower violent crime rates than MoCo.
The charts below show MoCo’s crime rates per 100,000 people for violent crimes and property crimes from 1975 through 2017. On both measures, MoCo’s crime rates are at their lowest levels since the 1970s.
So in broad terms, the protesters at the council building were wrong. MoCo’s crime rates are below average in Maryland on most measures and are at their lowest levels since Jimmy Carter was president.
But that’s not the end of the story.
For whatever reason, many people feel that crime is getting worse in the county, even if the statistics don’t back them up.
Why is that? One reason is the press, which relentlessly covers crime because it attracts lots of eyeballs. Coverage of MS-13 is a surefire way to get attention. The alleged rape at Rockville High School in 2017 (the charges were later dropped), a decapitation in Wheaton Regional Park and the recent rape allegations involving eight immigrants wanted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement were huge local stories.
Bethesda Beat covers all kinds of stories, but many other outlets – especially the TV stations – seem to primarily follow crime, weather and traffic, and little else.
Of course the press should cover crime. But the intensity of coverage plays a part in shaping perceptions.
For example, any regular watcher of the local evening news would conclude that Prince George’s County is overrun with crime of all kinds. And yet, the state’s crime data shows that Prince George’s had the 7th highest violent crime rate and the 8th highest property crime rate in Maryland in 2015-17.
Tiny Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore ranked 3rd on both violent and property crime rates over the same period. Dorchester’s violent crime rate was 41% higher than Prince George’s and its property crime rate was 52% higher. No one would ever guess this because Dorchester receives nowhere near as much press attention as Prince George’s.
Other counties not usually associated with lots of crime including Baltimore (County, not City), Allegany, Anne Arundel, Cecil, Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester have higher rates of violent crime, property crime or both than Prince George’s.
Baltimore City, which leads Maryland in crime, actually peaked in both violent and property crime rates in 1995 and has since fallen off (with murder an important exception).
And so statistics don’t always determine perception, especially when those statistics are not widely publicized.
County elected officials understandably reacted with hostility when right-wing provocateurs like Sebastian Gorka and Michelle Malkin showed up on their doorstep to condemn their immigration policies.
But not everyone who is concerned about crime in Montgomery County is a skinhead, a racist or a neo-Nazi. Some of them are simply reacting to social media, press and neighborhood discussions and wondering if the county is doing everything possible to keep them safe.
The challenge for elected officials is not simply to oppose racism and xenophobia. They must also reassure residents that yes, Montgomery County is a safer place than many other jurisdictions and the county government is working hard to keep it that way.
Adam Pagnucco is a writer, researcher and consultant who is a former chief of staff at the County Council. He has worked in the labor movement and has had clients in labor, business and politics.