When Burton Wright returned from church Sunday morning, he found a wooden 30-inch charred cross in the front lawn of his Essex rental house and became Baltimore County's latest victim of a hate incident.
Mr. Wright and his fiancee, Theresa Flanagan, who are black, and her two children, moved into the Foxridge Lane house in the predominantly white neighborhood in December.
"I never had a problem anywhere we lived," said Ms. Flanagan, 46. "I don't bother nobody. It was hard for me to understand."
County police photographed and removed the cross, interviewed neighbors and are looking for a suspect. If caught, the cross-burner could be charged with destruction of property, which carries a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail and a $500 fine, and violation of the hate crimes law, which could land the offender in jail for up to three years and cost $5,000 in fines, said Cpl. Kevin Novak, a county police spokesman.
A week before the cross-burning, about half a dozen men dressed in army pants and boots distributed Ku Klux Klan membership applications on Kinship and Melbourne roads in Dundalk.
Statistics released by county police show that between Jan. 1 and Sunday, 53 hate incidents were reported in the county, compared with 40 during the same period last year.
However, statistics show that reported hate incidents in the county went down from 297 in 1993 to 243 in 1994, and have gone down each year since a high in 1990 of 332, said Detective James Marcin, the county bias incidents coordinator.
Detective Marcin said one reason the 1995 figures show an increase could be the extreme cold and ice conditions early in 1994 that kept activity down.
The county Office of Minority Affairs defines hate incidents as occurrences "motivated in part by a person's race, religion, ethnic background, or sexual orientation." It can be a crime, but does not have to be -- the perception of the victim, not the illegality of the act, determines whether the occurrence is a hate incident in Maryland.
Adrienne A. Jones, director of the county Minority Affairs office, attributes the county statistical decline to two factors: a nationwide shift toward more tolerance and the incarceration of a Baltimore County man who led the local chapter of the Church of the Creator, a white supremacist group based in North Carolina that circulated an anti-black, anti-Jewish newsletter.
Some observers don't think the trend showing a three-year decrease in incidents means anything.
"While I believe there has been a decrease in the number of hate crimes, I really do not feel this is a sign of progress," said The Rev. W. James Favorite of the Coalition of Concerned African American Organizations, an umbrella group for black county civic, religious and business organizations. "What used to be done overtly is now being done covertly. While the incidents may have gone down, the attitude has not changed."
Detective Marcin has studied county hate crime trends for several years. He found that Essex and Dundalk had the highest numbers of hate incidents in 1994, followed by a cluster of incidents in the Towson area near the city line.
The next most prevalent areas were the Liberty and Reisterstown roads corridors on the west side of the county, and scattered areas throughout the southwest county. The lowest number of incidents were in the rural north county, he said.
In general, incidents most often happen inside or close to the Beltway in the same communities where most other crime takes place. The same geographic areas are affected year after year, Detective Marcin said.
Some observers say reported hate incidents do not keep up with the actual number of occurrences.
bTC Howard J. Ehrlich, a sociologist and co-director of the Prejudice Institute, an organization based at Towson State University that does policy research on prejudice, ethno-violence and discrimination, said the decline the county reported is "not really a significant difference."
"Generally speaking, there are fewer hate crimes reported to police or other authorities than there are other crimes," Mr. Ehrlich said. Many people do not report hate incidents because of shame, denial, fear of reprisals or doubt that authorities will do anything, he said.
An official with the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith said the decline is no big deal. "My response [to a decline] in any one county is that I would look at it with very cautious optimism," said David Friedman, director of the league's Washington regional office, which also covers Maryland and Northern Virginia.
"I think it would be premature for anyone to feel as though we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel on this kind of issue."
The league did a study that found a 10 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents nationally and an increase of more than 50 percent statewide between 1993 and 1994.
In 1993, there were 7,684 hate crimes reported nationally to the FBI, and 401 occurred that year in Maryland, according to the agency's most recent statistics.