Prince George's County Executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr. threw his weight behind a bill increasing the penalties for cross burning following numerous such incidents over the past year.
The bill, proposed by Councilman Floyd E. Wilson Jr., would increase the maximum jail sentence from 90 to 180 days and double the fine from $500 to $1,000.
"We will not tolerate cross burnings for racial or religious reasons in Prince George's County and we will use every effort and resource we have to stop it," Kelly said.
The county executive's press conference follows criticism last week from county NAACP president Sylvester J. Vaughans, who had said the county executive "must come out with a strong statement saying it (racial violence) will not be tolerated."
The county has experienced at least 17 cross burnings in the last 12 months and a string of other racial incidents. Cross burnings have also picked up in neighboring Montgomery County and in other Maryland subdivisions.
Vaughns said yesterday he was "happy to hear" that the county executive was responding to the problem because "the Klan and other people who perpetrate racial violence believe they can come here and the government had not said anything about it."
There has been disagreement as to how many of the cross burnings in Maryland have been the work of the Klan and how many have been random acts by juveniles.
Authorities have recently charged a Howard County resident described as an "exalted cyclops" of the Klan - with several cross burnings.
"To my knowledge there is no organized Klan activity in Prince George's County," Kelly said.He said that police and fire officials have told him the incidents were largely the work of juveniles.
He stressed, however, that the county government was no longer considering them "pranks."
Black community leaders and citizens had criticized the county police and fire departments for considering the incidents less seriously than the citizens believed they should be taken.
Another measure to cope with the incidents of cross burnings was outlined at yesterday's press conference by the head of the County Human Relations Commission, William Welsh.
The commission will soon develop a group of specialists to conduct "sensitivity" sessions in racially divided communities. Welsh also said the commission will ask the courts to force perpetrators of cross burnings to attend special human relations seminars run by the commission.