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Police say population growth leading to increase in robberies

July 14, 2007|By PEPPER BALLARD

The number of robberies in the area has increased over the past few years, and authorities say it is related to population growth that is changing the face of crime and the way police investigate it.

"We are growing," Hagerstown Police Department Sgt. Paul Kifer said. "Crime in general is not going to go away. It's going to grow exponentially with the growth of the city and the growth of the county."

Police have found that an increasing number of robbers have little connection to the area. And more robberies are being committed against individuals: In the first six months of this year, about two out of three robberies reported in the city were of a personal nature, Kifer said.

"I think that we're getting a little bit more of the larger city type of crime," he said. "It's become a busier community."

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But, Kifer added, "I don't think that we're living in any more of a dangerous community than we were before."

Numbers of stickups

Although the number of robberies has increased over the last several years, fewer incidents have been reported so far in 2007.

In the first six months of this year, the three biggest police agencies in Washington County investigated 57 robberies, compared with 69 robberies during the same time period last year.

Of those 57 robberies, the Hagerstown Police Department investigated 43 and made arrests in eight.

In addition, 33 of the robberies were against individuals. Arrests were made in five of those cases.

The Washington County Sheriff's Department made arrests in six of the seven robberies it investigated from January through June, and Maryland State Police, which also investigated seven robberies, made arrests in three, closed one without filing charges and issued an arrest warrant in another.

Forty-three robberies in Hagerstown in half a year might seem like a lot of stickups, but that's fewer robberies than the 54 investigated in the city during the first six months of 2006.

The number of robberies for all of 2006, 122, was a 49 percent increase over the 82 robberies in 2005.

There is no one reason for the increase, police said.

"There are so many different variables that can cause this," said Kifer, who noted that a lot of the street robberies were drug deals gone bad or were motivated by another criminal activity.

"Those are random things that can happen from time to time," he said. "There's nothing the public can do to avoid that 100 percent."

To catch a bandit

Holdups that occur in secluded areas, with few witnesses and little forensic evidence, are the most difficult cases to solve, Kifer said.

"Part of the problem is that your victim doesn't know who the (robber) is," he said. "If it happens on a street or in an alley, there are no eyewitnesses and no one from the public coming forward. Sometimes we just don't know who did it. Sometimes we're able to identify people we believe did it," but do not have enough evidence to file charges.

In drug-related robberies, Kifer said detectives will look to the department's Street Crimes Unit for help zeroing in on a suspect.

"We look at it as, 'If we don't get you locked up on this, we'll get you on something else,'" he said.

Kifer credits mass indictments recently handed up thanks to investigations by the Street Crimes Unit and the Washington County Narcotics Task Force for helping to put the brakes on street crime.

"Word gets out on the street," Kifer said.

When criminals hear that police have made several arrests or see several police officers converging on an area or heavily patrolling an area, they begin to lay low, Kifer said.

"It puts everybody on edge and slows the crime," he said.

Because of the volume of robberies, the department's patrol officers have taken on more investigative responsibilities, Kifer said.

"They have to make split-second decisions based on minimal information ... Without those guys, we couldn't do it," Kifer said.

Kifer said cooperation among departments in the Tri-State area has become a bigger factor in solving robberies than it was in years past.

The Washington County Sheriff's Department and Maryland State Police at the Hagerstown barracks were jointly investigating three bank robberies that they believe were committed by the same man.

Kifer said it's not uncommon for area police to share information or to work together on cases, which he said is a good thing.

Lt. Mark Knight of the Washington County Sheriff's Department agreed.

"All of the agencies around here have a tremendous working relationship, and we're able to get things done because of that working relationship," Knight said.

Caught on camera

Maryland State Police Sgt. Dave Bowers said that in general, developments in technology, including digital surveillance cameras, have made solving robberies a little easier.

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