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ABERDEEN, Md. -- Fresh graffiti found on the side of a shopping mart in Aberdeen wasn't flashy or colorful, but it made a big impression. Scrawled in big black marks were the letters "R.I.P.", followed by the names of three Aberdeen police officers.
It wasn't just vandalism, police said, but a threat.
"When you see 'R.I.P.,' you associate that with death, so we're looking at it as threatening," Sgt. Fred Budnick, spokesman for the Aberdeen Police Department, said yesterday. "We don't know whether this is an organized issue or if it's just kids who have had contact with these officers."
The three officers, whom Budnick declined to name, all work on the department's Rapid Response Team, which deals with drug and gang activity. Part of the officers' job is talking with people in the local communities, so their names are well-known, Budnick said.
"These officers have contacted thousands of people all over the city, so it's difficult to pin down who might be involved," Budnick said.
The Rapid Response Team, whose officers wear green fatigues, has been criticized by residents for being too aggressive in its efforts to reduce crime. They have also been accused of using questionable tactics in apprehending people and of searching individuals without cause.
David P. Henninger, a defense attorney in the county who said many of his clients have expressed resentment over how they were treated by Rapid Response officers, said he's not surprised by the graffiti message.
"There are just a lot of people out there who are not very happy with law enforcement right now," he said, "and it's not just the criminals."
Officers painted over the threatening message, which was found on the side of the E & B Food Market on East Bel Air Avenue about 8 a.m. Tuesday, hours after it was discovered. They were painting over other graffiti on the building yesterday, Budnick said.
The market is across the street from the Aberdeen Boys and Girls Club, which has about 400 members, said Kenneth Darden, executive director for the Boys and Girls Club in Harford County. The center provides activities for children to keep them away from drugs and gangs.
Darden said he has discussed the issue with his staff, who are "sure our kids aren't involved in this."
"It concerns me that young people feel that way about police officers, and we were kind of shocked by that," Darden said. "It's not a normal occurrence."
Budnick said the graffiti threats were probably a direct result of the officers doing their jobs well.
"We've stepped on some toes over there trying to make that area and all the areas in Aberdeen a safe place to work, live and visit," he said. "I've got to believe that if they write that on a wall, we've stepped on somebody's toes."
Aberdeen residents have had to put up with "overly zealous law enforcement," said defense lawyer Henninger.
"The word on the street is if you have certain tattoos on your arms, they're going to stop you; that you can't have anything red or blue on you, or you're a Blood or a Crip, and they're going to stop you," he said.
Last year, Henninger said a client had his Chevrolet Suburban taken by Rapid Response officers. Before his client was convicted of any drug charges, he said, officers drove the vehicle around Aberdeen with a note on its back window that read, "This vehicle belonged to a drug dealer and was seized by your Aberdeen Police Rapid Response Team."
A minister contacted Henninger last year to say his car had been searched by officers while he was trying to drive turkey dinners around to needy families in the area for Thanksgiving, Henninger said.
Aberdeen Police Chief Randy M. Rudy has said it is the department's responsibility "to make sure what we do is done constitutionally."
Darden and Budnick said police efforts have been good for the area, which has seen big improvements in recent years. One of the biggest impacts, Budnick said, has been the decrease in "open-air drug activity."
"Our patrols in there have made a big difference in the last few years," Budnick said. "We're assertive over in that area, we're diligent in those areas with the street contacts."
Budnick said police do not have any substantial leads in their investigation, but that there is a city camera in the area that could have recorded the vandalism.
Because of a storm a few days ago, the feed from the camera did not come into the police station as it usually does, but police are looking to see if footage of the crime was stored somewhere else, he said.
The camera was set up a few years ago after the area was designated a "hot spot" for crime, Budnick said.
"We're certainly hoping that these threats are idle chatter, but when someone makes that type of a comment to a police officer in today's society, it's taken very seriously," Budnick said. "These officers, like all of us, want to go home at the end of duty, and we can't afford not to take these things seriously."