A police officer stumbles on a circle of witches worshiping outdoors. The witch in the center is holding a sword. The officer calls her over.
To leave the circle, she brandishes the sword to cut a doorway in the air. The officer worries that the witch is getting ready to attack. What should he do? Prepare to shoot or back away and let her continue?
Choice No. 2, according to law enforcement officials and an Anne Arundel County witch who spoke at a conference in Dundalk yesterday designed to sensitize officers to the practice of witchcraft and other alternative rites.
"Witchcraft does not equal Satanism, and Satanism does not equal illegal activity," said Michael F. Ryan, an investigator with the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office who conducted the daylong briefing in Baltimore County.
About 150 officers from around the state learned about witchcraft, Santeria, Palo Mayombe, Satanism and Paganism at the conference titled "The Occult -- Alternative Religions," at the Maryland Transportation Authority Police Training Academy.
"We're doing this because we want police to know what's there," Mr. Ryan said. "Forget the bells and the whistles of the religion. Was a crime committed? If so, we'll deal with that."
And if there's no crime, leave us alone, said Diotima, a self-described witch and proprietor of the Turning Wheel, an occult bookstore in Pasadena.
Diotima, who has been practicing for nine years and calls herself one of the few Maryland witches to come "out of the broom closet," addressed the officers for an hour, describing her religion and asking for tolerance.
With flowing red hair, a dark green, floral print dress and matching blazer, Diotima looked like an ordinary businesswoman. But as she moved across the room, the loudspeaker system began to hum loudly. That's not unusual, she said, because electronic equipment doesn't work well in the presence of witches and psychics.
When other speakers took to the microphone, there were no problems.
She told the officers that witchcraft is an agriculture-based religion, with holidays based on the seasons and lunar cycles. She said witches often worship in a circle outdoors and believe in both a god and a goddess. They also believe they can influence physical reality through magic.
"It's one of the growing religions today," she said, but society has not always treated it kindly. She said she has been called "evil" and told she would burn in hell and said police have tampered with altars in the homes of witches she knows.
No one knows how many witches there are statewide or nationwide, she said, partly because many keep their practices secret to avoid harassment.
She also cited an incident of harassment at Prince George's Community College in Hyattsville. According to a campus spokeswoman, someone entered the Pagan Student Union Office, wrote "Evil" on several pieces of paper and hung them on the wall.
During a break in the conference, organized by the Maryland Crime Prevention Association and the Maryland Community Crime Prevention Institute, officers had varied reactions to a subject that doesn't turn up often in police academy curricula.
State police Cpl. Wayne Moffatt said that after listening to Diotima, he would "be more relaxed having a conversation with a witch."
"Just because they are a witch doesn't mean they're a bad person or doing something bad," he said.