ROCKVILLE, Md. — The number of homicides in Montgomery County dropped by half last year after a dramatic jump in 2015, Montgomery County Police Chief Tom Manger told the county council’s public safety committee during a briefing on 2016 crime statistics.
Police recorded 15 homicides last year, down from 30 in 2015, Manger said.
Manger was asked what accounted for both the spike and the subsequent downturn. “It’s anybody’s guess” he told reporters, but explained that homicides occur in three categories in the county: domestic, drug-related or gang-related.
Last year, five out of the 15 were gang-related, he said.
The number of rapes was up by 9 percent countywide according to Manger, who said the department believes the increase may be the result of reporting on highly publicized national cases.
“I’m hoping that some of it is due to the outreach that we’ve done, and the education that we’ve done” said Manger.
He also told the council members that in most cases, the victim and suspect were known to each other. “That in no way diminishes the violence and the impact to the victim, and it does not change the way we investigate it,” he said. “A rape is a rape and we take them all seriously.”
The number of traffic fatalities dropped from 38 in 2015 to 33 in 2016. “I will tell you that I think that a lot of this is education,” said Manger, who cited increased seat belt use and new safety features in cars.
Robberies were up by 10 percent, and police said they believe that could be tied to the use of social media, where two parties agree to meet to sell an item, and the encounter turns out to be a setup.
“We’re seeing more and more of these where they want to buy and sell something online and, lo and behold, this person wants to rob them,” said Lt. Michael Ward.
Gangs pose a number of threats to public safety, said Manger. “If you look at the numbers of gang crimes that we have, the numbers are still relatively low, but the nature of the violence has increased, and the age of the perpetrators has decreased.”
Police say younger gang members are often put in positions of authority in their respective gangs, and are what police call the “shot-callers” of their gangs, deciding where members rank in the gang, or who should be targeted for retribution.
Police say Montgomery County and the D.C. region is not alone in having to deal with escalating violence within gangs.
“We speak to our counterparts in Suffolk, Long Island, we talk to members in Houston as well as out on the West Coast” said Capt. Paul Liquorie, the director of Montgomery County Police’s special investigations unit.
He noted that police departments are having to change their approaches as gangs change the way they operate. “It was very easy to pick out who the gang members were,” but now, Liquorie said, members of MS-13 are getting away from wearing blue with the number 13 on it, or tattoos that make them easily identifiable to police.
“They’ve gone to some other subtle cues,” Liquorie said.
Opioids continue to exact a heavy toll in Montgomery County. Liquorie said in 2015, there was a 175 percent increase of nonfatal overdoses and a 50 percent increase in fatal overdoses.
So far this year, Liquorie said, the number of fatal overdoses is flat, and he said the ability of people to get access to Narcan may be responsible for that.
“Other trends we are starting to see: We have a reduction in the amount of heroin that we are seizing, however the amount of synthetic opioids is up, and that’s an alarming trend.”
Liquorie explained that many of the synthetic opioids are far more lethal, and the formulas that are being produced in laboratories are constantly changing.
The cost of dealing drugs
Montgomery County council member Craig Rice listened to the reports on drug-related crimes and said he thought that drug education for kids should include the sometimes-lethal results that come about when teens and young people try to buy drugs.
“We always just talk about ‘Oh, well, marijuana…’ but the reality is you can lose your life for a bag of marijuana,” said Rice. He added that kids need to be told, “You’re putting your life in danger in your hands every single time you go to that drug deal — you don’t know what’s going to happen; you don’t know what’s going to go down.”
Rice’s district includes Germantown, the home of Northwest High School, and he made reference to the two Northwest High students who were killed in a barrage of gunfire after police say they were lured to Montgomery Village by three suspects.
Police say their investigation showed that one of the victims, 17 year old Shadi Najjar, was targeted over a long-simmering dispute that was reportedly connected to a drug deal. Police said their investigation showed that Najjar was known to use and sell marijuana, a statement the teen’s father adamantly denies.
Manger agreed with Rice that there are risks associated with buying drugs on the street. Referring to drug sellers, Manger said, “There’s no ethical handbook, and they do what they want, and they can’t be trusted.”
Murders connected to drug deals are not new to Montgomery County. There have been a number of killings connected in some way to illegal drug sales, going back to 2005 when an 18-year-old was stabbed to death in Damascus and a 17-year-old was shot to death in Bethesda in separate incidents. In both cases, the victims were involved in disputed drug deals that turned fatal.
Read the Montgomery County police’s full 2016 crime report: