Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Talking about hate crimes

Well, as promised, I appeared this afternoon on Michael Medved's radio show on KTTH-AM in Seattle to talk about hate crimes. We used my book Death on the Fourth of July: The Story of a Killing, a Trial, and Hate Crime in America as a jumping-off point.

I was treated courteously throughout (Medved did have to prod me at one point when I was trying not altogether successfully to come up with a succinct way to make a point) and I thought the hour was well spent. Obviously, I didn't make a convert out of Medved, but I think I managed to clear up a lot of the myths about hate crimes that permeate the discussion.

The rush of a radio talk show often sweeps away more detailed points, and there was one case of this I thought I'd explain a little more here. I mentioned, during the show, that there was a recent story in the Philly Inquirer about a significant upsurge in white-supremacist activity in New Jersey. Many of the hate crimes being perpetrated as result of this trend were anti-Semitic crimes, ranging from assaults to vandalism. But there was another component: immigrants were probably being attacked in significant numbers, but were not reporting the crimes:
Jews are hardly the only group that has felt the press of hate groups, many of which have been motivated by an influx of immigrants, experts say.

Last year, a pack of teens and young men called the East Coast Hate Crew attacked at least 10 Mexican men in Ocean County over a four-month period, investigators said. The beatings and robberies typically took place on streets late at night as the Mexicans were heading home from work.

Eight people were charged with the crimes. Officials suspected more attacks, said Christensen, the state investigator, but it was difficult to find victims because many would have been illegal immigrants.

"They were just getting beaten and walking home with their friends and not reporting this to the police," he said.

This points to one of the most significant reasons that hate crimes are underreported substantially in this country (as I said on the air, the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that, in contrast to the 9,000 or so reported to the FBI annually, the actual figure is likely close to 40,000): a major portion of the unreported hate crimes involve attacks on immigrants. This trend has been increasing rapidly in the past year or two.

I explained some of this on pp. 168-169 of Death on the Fourth of July:
Of all the factors that cause law-enforcement officers to fail to identify and investigate bias crimes, the most significant, the DOJ study's authors found, was the gap between the victims and the police. The less trust that exists between minorities and their local law enforcement, the greater the likelihood that hate crimes will go unresolved.

The Filipino family that encountered Chris Kinison and his friends in Ocean Shores was a textbook example of how hate crimes can go unresolved this way. Many of the victims spoke poor English and had difficulty communicating with the police officers who came to their rescue; even though some of them later reported that they had wanted to pursue harassment charges against the men, the officers either failed or refused to register this. And the officers, little trained in dealing with hate crimes, clearly did not recognize that they had come upon the scene of a felony, which in most other such cases would require a careful and serious investigation and specialized handling of the victims.

By seeming eager to simply break up the potential violence and send everyone on their respective ways—and particularly by escorting the family to the town's borders—the officers communicated to the victims the message that the harassment they had endured was insignificant. This in turn feeds the distrust that any outsider (particularly a minority) in a strange town is likely to feel.

Moreover, the incident vividly illustrates that the problem of letting hate crimes go unresolved extends well beyond the mere statistical issues, and that the stakes can be very high indeed, especially for small towns. The result, as it was in Ocean Shores, was that these crimes can escalate from simple harassment to outright violence. Perpetrators, as some studies have observed, see their escape from the arm of the law almost as an invitation to step things up.

Other studies have likewise observed that the most common cause of this cascade of crime is the failure of police to proactively bridge the gap between themselves and the victims. The JRSA's Joan Weiss, in earlier research, found that the reluctance of victims to report crimes was significantly higher for hate crimes than for other crimes. The DOJ study reiterates this point: "For a multitude of reasons, hate crime victims are a population that is leery of reporting crimes—bias or otherwise—to law enforcement agencies."

Most hate-crime victims are minorities in the communities where the crimes occur. In many cases, they have poor English skills and have difficulty asking for assistance; in others, they may simply be unaware that what has happened to them is a serious crime. This is particularly true for immigrants, who may be reluctant to even contact police because of their experience with law enforcement in their homelands, where corruption and indifference to such crimes are not uncommon. Likewise, hate-crime victims may be confused about or unaware of the bias motivation involved, interpreting a threat or assault as a random act when other evidence suggests it was not. At other times, they may be reluctant to tell police about the bias aspects of the acts against them, fearing the police won't believe them or that they simply won't do anything about it anyway. And in the case of gays and lesbians, many are reluctant to report the crimes out of fear they will be forced to reveal their own identities as homosexuals; many more fear (sometimes with good reason) that they will wind up being humiliated and victimized further by police.

Likewise, many minorities in certain communities—blacks in the South or Hispanics in the Southwest, for example—have long histories of built-up distrust of law enforcement in their communities, and may simply refuse to participate in an investigation without proactive efforts on the part of police to bridge that gap. Indeed, this level of involvement was almost unanimously the chief factor reported by advocacy groups when queried by the authors of the DOJ study about what most affected hate-crime victims' decision to call or cooperate with police.

Of course, I was going to explain all that in a sentence or two. Really.

I do like blogs better than talk shows, because, you know, if I stammer behind the keyboard, I can just erase it. But thanks to Medved for the courteous and rational conversation.

[I don't think either an archive or transcript of the conversation exists, sorry to report.]

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