For Allegany, a decline of industry, a rise in crime

CrimeHealthCumberland (Allegany, Maryland)TheftEconomy, Business and FinanceAllegany CountyPolitics

The black metal bars on the front door and window at Kelly's Tavern mark how life has changed in Allegany County these past few years. Antoinette Kelly put those up in the spring, after someone broke in through the door, stole about $200 in cash, a bottle of Captain Morgan rum and a bottle of Jack Daniel's whiskey and left — apparently in haste.

Must have been some kid, she figured. It was. She paid a few hundred dollars to install the bars, something she'd never figured on doing.

"I never thought about getting broken into," said Kelly, 91, who has run the bar since 1945, first with her husband, William P. Kelly, then on her own since he died in 1977. "You don't think about those things in small towns. I leave my doors open all the time."

As crime increases, it's something people have to think more about in Allegany, where the hilly scenery is easy on the eyes but life is hard in a place that never recovered from a mass departure of manufacturing jobs more than 20 years ago. Kelly has barred the door and window, while her neighbors at R&J Creations and Diner installed new deadbolts after they were hit by the same burglar on the same night. Owners of the nearby Geo. Ternent & Sons hardware store, in business since 1885, installed a video security system a few years ago.

"People do not have money. They're getting desperate," said Jack Ternent, whose grandfather, George, founded the store.

The crime rate in Baltimore and most Maryland localities has gone up and down since the state joined a national system of standardized record-keeping in 1975. But statistics released last month show that the number of crimes per 100,000 people is lower in 21 of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions than it was 36 years ago.

The exceptions are Allegany and two Eastern Shore counties, Caroline and Wicomico, where the crime rate is higher than in 1975. In Allegany, however, the crime rate — mostly driven by property crime — is the highest in three decades.

Police and politicians, social service providers and longtime residents have notions about why this is so, but most point to the sagging economy and to drug abuse. Many see crime statistics as another measure of how this western county of about 72,000 residents that borders Pennsylvania and West Virginia is suffering.

The poverty rate in Allegany is the third-highest in the state, and the median income is the second-lowest. Unemployment in July was 8.8 percent, well above the state average of 7.2 percent. Demand for domestic violence counseling and for services in homeless shelters and drug treatment centers is up. The statistics paint a bleak picture of life in what once was a booming factory area and home to Cumberland, formerly the state's second-largest city.

Former state Sen. John Bambacus was not surprised to hear that the crime rate in his county is running counter to the state trend, which last year showed an overall 5 percent drop. In his view, Allegany's crime woes are "primarily due to two things: The economy is one, and drugs is the other."

Statistics released last month by the state show that last year in Allegany County, there were 3,958 crimes per 100,000 people, a 10 percent increase over 2009 and about one-third more than in 1975. Perhaps more significantly, the crime rate there has risen fairly steadily over 36 years.

Two local officials say they're concerned about the trend, but they're not losing sleep over it. They say crime was not a significant issue in last fall's elections, which ushered in a new three-member County Commission and a new mayor of Cumberland. Voters focused more on jobs and the condition of local streets and water systems.

"Obviously, it's something we have to look at," said County Commissioner Michael W. McKay. "I'm just not as alarmed about it."

Cumberland Mayor Brian K. Grim notes that city and county economic development efforts continue to tout low crime rates to lure new businesses and residents.

"I recognize it as a problem," Grim said, but "I have no fear walking the streets of Cumberland any time of day or night."

A comparison with Baltimore, which has Maryland's highest crime rate, puts the Allegany figures into perspective. In 2010, the rate of violent crimes in Allegany was 429 per 100,000 people, less than a third of Baltimore's rate of 1,461 per 100,000. The property crime rate was closer: 3,529 per 100,000 in Allegany, 4,484 in the city.

In Baltimore County, there were 545 violent crimes per 100,000 people last year and 3,024 property crimes.

Overall, Allegany's crime rate was the sixth-highest in the state.

Ralph A. Weisheit, a criminal justice professor at Illinois State University who specializes in rural crime, said the figures for Allegany County indicate a troubling trend.

"Yes, those numbers would definitely get my attention," he said in an email, adding that he wondered if there had been a change in how officials report crimes, whether citizens were reporting more or if crime had actually increased.

County and city police officials say there's been no change in how they report crimes. But in recent years, Cumberland police have encouraged residents to be more vigilant, and Grim contends that has led to more reports.

Police say analysis of crime reports helps them put more officers into emerging hot spots. Lately, that has involved pursuing burglars and people stealing from cars, some spurred by abuse of illegal or prescription drugs.

From spring to early last month, Cumberland police pursued a group of 12 to 15 young people who called themselves "The Best Crew Ever." They wandered the city, looking for unlocked cars and grabbing what they could. Such "crimes of opportunity" also occur when residents leave their doors open, police say.

Police can tell when prices for scrap copper and other metals rise by the increase in reports of thefts of pipe and wire, often from vacant houses and utility lines.

"There's no serial numbers on a string of copper wire," said Cumberland police Lt. David Biser, making it an attractive target.

This summer, Cumberland police traced about 30 home break-ins to a drug dealer who was accepting televisions and jewelry in exchange for heroin and cocaine. They're still looking for the dealer, but they did arrest someone accused of stealing a 32-inch, flat-screen TV from his brother to support a drug habit.

Sgt. Wayne Sibley, an Allegany sheriff's deputy who just returned to patrol duty after nine years in a county drug task force, recalled one dealer who liked getting paid in lump crab meat. It's not clear whether thefts of crab went up or if addicts were stealing other things to pay for it.

Sibley said addicts describe their drug habits in terms of dollars per day, sometimes $200 or $300. They rarely have steady jobs, so the money for drugs has to come from somewhere else.

Contrary to a stereotype of rural drug abuse, Sibley said, Allegany does not have a problem with methamphetamine; it's prescription drugs, marijuana, crack and powder cocaine, and heroin.

Herb Howard, a co-owner of Western Maryland Recovery Services in Cumberland, said the drug treatment clinic opened in 2006 in response to rising demand. The link to poor job opportunities is clear enough, he said.

"We see it as an economic problem rather than a drug problem," said Howard, whose clinic — one of two in the county treating addicts with drugs such as methadone and Suboxone — serves about 200 people at any given time. "An idle mind is the devil's playground."

Officials and residents often voice suspicions that local crime is made worse by the presence of a federal prison and two state facilities that have opened near Cumberland since the mid-1990s. Taken together, the prisons can house about 4,000 men.

But there's little evidence that the prisons bring more crime to Cumberland, said Biser, the department's criminal supervisor. He studied the question in 2007, shortly before the North Branch Correctional Institution opened as a maximum-security state prison, and found that just 1 percent of the released state prisoners settled in the area, and few arrests could be traced to former prisoners, their friends or relatives.

The state prisons do have an impact on crime statistics, because killings and assaults there are recorded as county crimes. That is not the case for the federal prison.

North Branch sits next to the Western Correctional Institution off Route 220 south of Cumberland, on land that was once home to the county's largest employer, the Celanese Corp. At its peak in the 1940s and 1950s, the textiles manufacturer employed 10,000 people.

Employment shrank to about 2,000 before the company moved out in 1983, the second of three major blows to the area jobs market in a decade. Pittsburgh Plate Glass had moved out in 1977, taking more than 1,600 jobs, and Kelly-Springfield Tire Co. ended its manufacturing operation in 1987, closing its corporate offices shortly after.

Allegany still counts about 2,400 residents working in manufacturing and points to recent expansions of several facilities. However, no one claims that the county has fully recovered from the losses of the 1970s and 1980s.

"It's a very tough time," said Courtney A. Thomas, executive director of the Allegany County Human Resources Commission, which coordinates an array of social-service programs. She said the homeless shelters that once saw seasonal peaks and valleys are now full or nearly so year-round, and demand for social services is up at a time when government support is threatened. The crime statistics, she said, are indicative of "people being desperate because of the economy."

It's hard to know what might have motivated the 17-year-old arrested in the spring break-ins in Lonaconing. The business owners said the juvenile got about $200 from Kelly's Tavern and about $300 from R&J Creations, including money the owners' 8-year-old niece was saving for a class trip to the Pittsburgh Zoo. The owners of Geo. Ternent & Sons said he tried to get in through a back door but did not succeed. Their video surveillance system captured an image of the youth looking into the store, said Scott Ternent, great-grandson of the original owner.

"It's getting worse and worse," Scott Ternent said, standing next to the video screen that shows images from 14 security cameras placed inside and outside the store. He said the store had the system put in two or three years ago amid a spate of shoplifting. "It's awful. It's mostly drugs."

Still, Grim sees the glass as half-full.

"The crime rate has always been so low," the mayor of Cumberland said. "So, for being so low, there's only one direction you can go."

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

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