Deputy Bryan Carlson

Deputy Bryan Carlson, left, looks over documents he and Sgt. Wayne Sibley, right, will serve to a woman in a domestic violence case. (Perna, Algerina, Baltimore Sun / September 17, 2011)

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.