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County sees big crime increase

August 07, 2000

County sees big crime increase



By MARLO BARNHART / Staff Writer


Overall crime in Washington County through June shot up 22 percent over the first six months of 1999.

Leading the way was a 36 percent rise in both retail and residential thefts, a surge which is running several police agencies ragged.

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"This is having a dramatic impact on our resources," said Lt. Doug Mullendore, who heads up the patrol division at the Washington County Sheriff's Department.

A boom in the number of retail stores from new malls such as Prime Outlets and The Centre at Hagerstown, coupled with the expansion of the Valley Mall, is a major factor affecting police calls for thefts.

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Several years ago, the Sheriff's Department adopted a retail thefts policy to help curb the number of calls, Mullendore said.

"Unless the shoplifter is from out of state or has no identification or is a juvenile from out of state, we let stores bring their own charges," Mullendore said.

But that policy has lagged behind the growth in new stores and the sad fact that shoplifting is generally on the rise. "We are just not seeing any relief," he said.

There is no apparent change in the pattern of thefts except that retail thieves are predominantly local people, usually in their teens or early 20s, Mullendore said.

"They get items to sell to their own friends, like CDs and stereos," he said. Other items end up at flea market and at yard sales, which aren't regulated like pawn shops, which must report all purchases to police.

"From 1993 to 2000, we have more than doubled our calls," Mullendore said. But staff numbers have nowhere near doubled.

"We just have to spread our manpower thinner," Mullendore said.

At the Valley Mall, a proactive approach is reducing thefts, according to Ron Formosa, mall management spokesman.

"Our theft numbers are actually down 22 percent for the second quarter of 2000," Formosa said, citing his most recent figures.

He attributes the drop to more security guards, better training, bike and car patrols outside the stores and having two uniformed deputies on the mall payroll Friday and Saturday evenings.

"Our security guards cannot arrest people for shoplifting, but deputies can," Formosa said.

From January to June of this year, Maryland State Police troopers investigated 151 thefts, many from motor vehicles.

The year before, 121 thefts were reported during the same period.

Lt. Bruce Smith, barrack commander in Hagerstown, said locking vehicles and keeping valuables out of sight would greatly decrease the number of those thefts.

"It is so simple ... the more difficult one makes it for the thief, the less likely one is to become a victim of theft," Smith said.

Heading up the charts for Hagerstown City Police were incidents of breaking and entering, which are up 21 percent over the six-month period, from 136 to 164, according to records compiled by Lt. Jack Moulton.

Thefts also increased for the city police from 458 cases to 526, an increase of 15 percent.

"A lot of it is drugs," said Sgt. Ronald Graves of the city police. "People break in to get things to sell for drugs."

What amazes Graves is the victims who leave purses and wallets and other valuables in unlocked cars.

As for actual thefts of cars, many of the 63 car thefts during the first six months of this year are the result of owners leaving their keys in their cars or their cars running while they run into a store, Graves said.

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