Reacting to a dramatic rise in the number of hate crimes reported in Howard County in recent years, about 200 people attended a conference yesterday aimed at keeping the area from becoming, in the words of one organizer, "a hotbed of racial, religious and ethnic violence."

The Conference on Racial, Religious and Ethnic Incidents, the first such event in the county, came two days after a similar conference in Baltimore, where about 1,500 government leaders, educators and members of the clergy gathered to discuss a string of racially motivated incidents there last summer.

A report released by the Maryland Commission on Human Relations in September showed that hate crimes in the state rose from 398 in 1986 to 686 in 1989.

At the Howard County conference yesterday, the county's Office of Human Rights released a study that said reported bias incidents had increased from 20 in 1987 to 72 in 1990.

"We like to get busy on things before people start asking, 'How did you get here?' " said Maggie Brown, a Howard County government worker who has lived in Columbia for 20 years. "We don't want to get where things are unmanageable and our county is falling apart."

"This is a pro-active event," said Cynthia Harvey, administrator of the Office of Human Rights and moderator of the conference.

Sixty-three percent of the Howard incidents were racial and an additional 24 percent were religious, the report said. The other hate crimes were classified either as ethnic or social/religious. Most of the crimes were vandalism or verbal slurs and threats, but there were 12 assaults.

The leap in hate crimes surprised many at the conference, which was held at the Maryland School for the Deaf in Columbia.

"It's been quite enlightening, just to find out the things that are happening around you," said Wylene Burch, a Columbia resident and an organizer of the newly opened Howard County Center for African-American Culture. "You'd like to think these types of things aren't occurring in Howard County."

The conference also featured the preliminary results of a survey distributed to 14,500 students and county employees. It found that the vast majority of hate crimes aren't reported by victims.

Of the 1,459 people who returned surveys, 391 said they had suffered hate crimes since living in Howard County. Only 59 said they had reported the incidents.

Howard County Police Chief Frederick W. Chaney, who attended the conference, said he was particularly disturbed by the reluctance of victims to report hate crimes.

"I think we need to speak out about these incidents," Chaney said. "Unless people speak out, these incidents will just keep building and building."

One of the afternoon's most dramatic speakers was Thomas Martinez, former member of a white supremacist group known as The Order, who told of his role in the organization and his subsequent defection to become an FBI informant.

Martinez, 35, said he expects hate crimes to become more frequent as the nation's sluggish economy worsens. He predicted that hate groups will grow in numbers, because in tough economic times, "there's always scapegoating. It's always somebody else's fault."