A recent spate of hate crimes, in which a chemical was used to scorch swastikas, "white power" or "WP" into eight Ellicott City front lawns, could be a juvenile "prank," the county's acting Police Chief William J. McMahon said yesterday.
"It's been my experience that a lot of these cases involve kids who don't know better or should know better," McMahon said, adding that if that were the case, it would not minimize the seriousness of the crime or the pain that the vandalism has caused victims.
McMahon said that he has increased patrols in the area and doubled the reward for information that leads to an arrest to $1,000. His staff also has distributed fliers in the area, and he plans to discuss the crimes with local leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on June 26 at the group's first regularly scheduled meeting since his promotion.
McMahon, who took over June 1, said that detectives "have not zeroed in on" a suspect, but that the school resource officer at nearby Mount Hebron High School is participating in the investigation. In early April, a 7-foot-long swastika was painted on the school's football field and at least 16 school windows were smashed.
"We don't know if the two incidents are connected," McMahon said. "But because of the geographic proximity, we're looking into it."
Police have investigated 24 hate-bias cases so far this year. That rate is in line with the number of cases investigated during 2005 and 2004 - 56 and 55, respectively - and an increase from 2002 and 2003, during which police opened no more than 39 cases per year. Incidents, however, are still below the 2001 level, when 68 hate-bias cases were recorded.
"The sad thing about this kind of activity is that you sometimes have copycats," said Natalie Woodson, education chairwoman of the Howard County branch and Maryland state conference of the NAACP. "Just like any form of ugliness, we don't want to allow it to spread, and we want to nip it in the bud. So we're looking at this very seriously, not as an isolated incident at all."
Of the eight recent incidents in Ellicott City, the first four were likely committed at the same time and began appearing around June 5 in an upscale neighborhood behind Hollifield Station Elementary School off Rogers Avenue.
A white wooden fence, anchored with rectangular brick posts, lines the entrance to the neighborhood. Most of the homes are similar - large two-story dwellings with brick facades, vinyl sides, two-car garages and shutters that have been drilled into the facades. The swastikas, abbreviations and words in this area were not visible from the street yesterday.
The second group of incidents occurred on the other side of Rogers Avenue in the 8900 block of Chapel Ave. and the 8900 block of Old Frederick Road.
At least one of the eight victimized families are black, another Indian and two in the second group are white, according to Rufus Clanzy, director of the county's Office of Human Rights.
"No one race seems to be targeted over any other race," said Sherry Llewellyn, a spokeswoman for police.
Clanzy said that one of the victims was watering his lawn, trying to erase the symbols, when he visited Friday.
"In this instance, the fact that the incidents and crimes are concentrated disturbs us quite a bit," Clanzy said.
Howard County police are asking anyone with information to call 410-313-3200. Police, local leaders of the NAACP and community members will meet at 7 p.m. June 26 at the United Methodist Church's conference center, 7178 Columbia Gateway Drive, Columbia.
The 24 cases Howard County police have labeled as hate-bias incidents in 2006: January 5 - 10800 Green Mountain Circle, Columbia: Racial slurs used during dispute
14 - 4200 Centennial Lane, Ellicott City: Racial drawing painted on wall of school
19 - 3200 Safari Court, E.C.: Racial slurs written on balloons, left on property
27 - 3100 West Springs Drive, E.C.: Suspect left racial remarks on voice mail February 1 - 9300 Gorman Road, Laurel: Racial slurs painted on house
6 - 10800 Graeloch Road, Laurel: Anti-gay messages written in chalk in front of house March 4 - 3500 Church Road, E.C.: Racial slurs painted on home under construction
8 - 9000 Town & Country Blvd., E.C.: Both parties called each other racial slurs during dispute
12 - 10300 Hickory Ridge Road, Columbia: Victim received an anti-gay note
12 - Governor's Run, Governor Grayson Way, E.C.: Racial messages and drawings written on three driveways in chalk
17 - 11500 Scaggsville Road, Fulton: Racial drawing on chalkboard
17 - 7100 Harp String, Columbia: Racial slurs used during dispute
23 - 10000 Route 108, E.C.: Racial slurs used during dispute
25 - 6000 Rock Glen Drive, Elkridge: Racial drawing painted on house
31 - 8400 Charmed Days, Laurel: Pentagram painted in front of house April 1 - 10200 Route 40, E.C.: Marquee letters rearranged to spell racial slur
2 - 3700 College Ave., E.C.: Vehicle spray painted with racial slurs
8 - 9900 Route 99, E.C.: School vandalized, racial drawing painted on football field
27 - 6800 Cradlerock Way, Columbia: Racial slur used during dispute May 1 - 10400 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia: Business received a letter with racial remarks
12 - 4300 Montgomery Road, E.C.: Racial slur used during dispute June 6 - Stonehouse Drive/Chapel Ave., E.C.: Racial drawings and words burned into lawns (eight houses)
9 - Summer Sunrise and Angel Rose Court, Clarksville: Street signs and sidewalk painted with racial slurs
11 - Morgan Station Road, Woodbine: Mailbox painted with racial drawing