Howard police say hardly a week goes by without a report of indecent exposure somewhere in the county. Victims are left startled, shaken, maybe disgusted, but usually unharmed.
So far this year, police have logged 87 such cases, an 8 percent increase from the 69 incidents reported in all of 1992. Police say there's no obvious reason for the increase. They believe there are many other cases that are never reported.
"It's everywhere out there, we just keep track of it," said a Howard County police spokesman, Sgt. Gary Gardner. "We take it very seriously."
For the most part, the flashers have remained anonymous, hiding under cover of darkness, running away or just slipping on their clothes before officers arrive. That's why, police say, most are never caught.
Police say they can't calculate the exact number of arrests for indecent exposure because some of the offenders are categorized under other common violations such as disorderly conduct, trespassing, public intoxication or resisting arrest.
Sometimes, officers happen to be in the right place at the right time. In an incident reported Nov. 8, a police officer en route to a domestic dispute came across a suspicious 33-year-old North Laurel man standing near a mailbox in the 6100 block of Ducketts Lane in Elkridge.
The 6-foot-2-inch, 235-pound man was nude from the waist down and wore a black sports jacket, a Long John shirt and a padded bra. He is awaiting trial and has been ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, court records show.
Other examples this year include:
A naked man who waved to a girl as she walked along a trail at Centennial Park.
An early morning jogger at Lake Kittamaqundi who heard a whistle and, upon looking, saw a man with his pants down.
A late-night cleaning woman at an Owen Brown office building who heard a tap on the window and saw a man masturbating outside.
An Ellicott City woman who reported seeing a man dressed only in dark socks and shoes standing on the railing outside her kitchen window.
Perhaps the most notable exhibitionist in recent months is a man police say is responsible for at least six incidents in Oakland Mills communities along Stevens Forest Road this summer.
Each time, residents reported seeing a slim man, about 5 feet 11 inches tall, masturbating, exposing himself or peering into bedroom windows. Witnesses said the suspect was nude except for a cap or another piece of clothing on his head.
The last report of this suspect came in August, when a naked man waved to a woman as she entered an apartment building in the 9600 block of White Acre Road.
"I'd certainly like to catch him. He's done a boatload of them," said Sgt. Pete D'Antuono, head of Howard County Police Department's Crimes Against Persons unit.
"But he's stopped since the weather got colder -- for obvious reasons," Sergeant D'Antuono said.
Police say that while most offenders apparently suffer from sexual disorders beyond their control, others may expose themselves just for kicks or to get attention.
"You find people from all walks of life doing this," said police spokesman Sgt. Gary Gardner. "Doctors, lawyers, judges as well as indigents have been treated for psychological problems after getting caught exposing themselves."
Sergeant Gardner recalled one case about six years ago in which he arrested a prominent Columbia businessman who cruised the city during his lunch hour. The man would call women over to his car, ostensibly to ask for directions, then expose himself before speeding away. He was caught when one woman got his car license number.
Police said the suspects, who vary in personality, profession and temperament, typically are white males in their late teens to their 30s.
Exhibitionist behavior usually is not a precursor to violent crime like rape or child molestation. If the offenders go untreated, however, their behavior could become more serious, mental health professionals say.
"We're not talking about the guy who gets drunk at the football game and moons everybody," said Dr. Fred S. Berlin, a Johns Hopkins associate professor who is head of the National
Institute for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Trauma, located in East Baltimore.
Dr. Berlin said the intent of compulsive exhibitionists is to have the victim become aroused. When that does not happen, the offender may stop the behavior.
Stress, depression and feelings of failure can heighten the problem, making the behavior more difficult for exhibitionists to control, Dr. Berlin said. Some medical treatment includes injections of depo-lupron and depo-provera to lower testosterone levels, he said.
According to police, densely populated areas such as Columbia and Ellicott City are the most likely locations for flashers, especially in apartment complexes.
A Part 2 offense
Indecent exposure is categorized as a Part 2 offense in Howard County, merged with crimes such as simple assault, vandalism, disorderly conduct and some drug offenses.
Conviction for indecent exposure could mean a three-year jail term and a $1,000 fine.
But usually, unless an offender repeatedly violates the law, judges and attorneys favor counseling as part of probation, said Assistant State's Attorney Michael Weal, chief of the Howard District Court Division.
"It happens anywhere you can imagine," said Sergeant Gardner, recalling one instance in which a nude man ran on the track at Howard Community College.
Police say they expect more reports of indecent exposure once warmer temperatures return.