Determining if crime is hate-based is no easy task

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Despite near-daily reports of attacks against people who appear Middle Eastern, the difficulty in determining what motivated the criminals and the nation's imprecise system for tracking hate crimes make it impossible to know how dramatically such violence has surged.

Since Sept. 11, the FBI has opened investigations into 145 reported hate crimes, the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Southern California has reported 800 cases nationwide, and the LAPD reported 32 in Los Angeles alone.

But the FBI, for example, opens an investigation when agents receive reports of suspected hate crimes. It does not mean that the FBI has determined that all are hate crimes or that all are being actively investigated. Locally, the situation is equally murky.

Whatever the number, there is no doubt that many people have been victimized over these anxious weeks and that many have suffered because of their ethnicity or their appearance. But determining whether these cases are motivated by hate is difficult because it requires exploring a gray area of criminal justice: intent.

Did the killer of an Egyptian grocer in San Gabriel, Calif., have an ethnic bias against Egyptians, or was the killing an interrupted armed robbery that turned into a murder? Was a Muslim woman nearly driven off a road in Florida because of her ethnicity, or was it a case of road rage? Were the windows of a service station in Michigan shot out because its owners are Arab Americans or because it was a good target for a shooting spree?

Judging intent is difficult

Beyond proving what was in the mind of the criminal, the definition of a hate crime varies from state to state. Some local law enforcement agencies collect the data, others don't. And many of the crimes go unreported by victims afraid to share the facts with police.

In addition, some skeptics suggest that advocacy groups inflate hate crime statistics to drum up support for their causes.

Meanwhile, the tracking systems for cases that are filed are similarly flawed.

Law enforcement agencies are not required to report hate crimes to the federal government. Yet the FBI issues an annual crime report listing hate crimes. So when the FBI announced in 1999, for example, that there were 7,876 bias-motivated crimes, that did not reflect all the law enforcement agencies in the country.

When California Attorney General Bill Lockyer announced Sept. 19 that his office is investigating 70 possible hate crimes, he meant that some major police departments in the state are looking at that many cases. When City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo announced that his office received 37 reports of hate crimes, his office in fact got the number from a Los Angeles Police Department spokesman who later said the department is unsure how many of those were truly hate-motivated.

"To be perfectly honest, as ugly as these things are, I don't know if law enforcement has an accurate and true picture of these crimes," said Special Agent Chris Davis, the hate crimes coordinator for the FBI's Los Angeles region.

Mark Potok, a spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, agreed.

"The truth is, hate crime statistics are so fouled up ... there's never going to be a way to define it," said Potok, whose organization is tracking reports of hate crimes since the terrorist attacks. "You simply cannot tell whether hate crimes are going up or down."

A research group affiliated with the Southern Poverty Law Center compiled a list of 134 reported hate incidents from around the country on the Web site www.tolerance.org. It lists two homicides, along with vandalism, verbal threats and some assaults -- all since Sept. 11, when terrorists crashed two planes into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon and a fourth into a field in Pennsylvania.

The passage of the first hate crime laws came partly in response to the 1986 murder of Michael Griffith, a 23-year-old black man who was beaten to death in the New York City neighborhood of Howard Beach. Griffith was killed while trying to escape a mob of white teen-agers wielding baseball bats and shouting racial epithets. Since then, hate crime has become an established -- if much debated -- branch of criminal law.

In California, a pioneering state in enacting hate crime laws, any illegal act motivated by race, religion, sexual orientation or physical or mental disability is considered a hate crime. Enacted in 1987, the laws generally tack on prison time to those convicted of other offenses in cases where prosecutors show that hate motivated the act. Thirteen states include crimes motivated by gender as hate offenses.

Hate crime really is seen as two crimes. There is the underlying offense, the assault or vandalism or threat. And there is the motivation of hatred of a particular type of person that draws an extra punishment.

Sometimes hatred is apparent

Some recent incidents seem to clearly fit the definition of a hate crime. An Iraqi grocery store owner in San Francisco found "Terrorist Go Home" scrawled in black marker on his storefront. A Sikh gas station owner in Mesa, Ariz., was killed, allegedly by a pickup truck driver who shouted, "I stand for America all the way" as he was apprehended. In Tacoma, Wash., vandals spray-painted, "Zionism + U.S. = 5,000 dead" in a synagogue parking lot.

Mosques have been burned, Arab Americans have reported receiving threatening e-mails on their personal computers, and a Pakistani restaurant was set on fire in Salt Lake City.

But most of the alleged hate offenses that have been reported throughout the United States in the month since the terrorist attacks may be hard to prove. That's one reason hate-crime conviction rates typically are low, officials say.

Another reason, according to Michael Gennaco, formerly the head of the hate crimes unit in the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, is that many state prosecutors find the cases complex and difficult to prove.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Homicide Capt. Frank Merriman is overseeing the murder investigation of Adel Karas, the Egyptian grocer in San Gabriel. Investigators have not determined what was behind that killing, but he warned that most such cases turn out not to be ethnically motivated.

"We have very, very few hate-related murders. Absolutely few," he said. "I can think of maybe a couple in the last few years."

And from an investigative standpoint, Merriman said, "It's really inconsequential unless it helps us solve the case in some way."

A fire at an Afghan restaurant in Encino, which drew headlines following the attacks, was determined to be arson, but city fire officials said they do not consider it a hate crime.

Although Merriman downplayed the importance of racial motive in investigating a case, others argue that it does have significance, if only in persuading authorities to pay more attention to an incident that otherwise might be swept under the rug.

In the Karas case, for example, the FBI, the sheriff's homicide bureau and the sheriff's hate crimes unit are investigating the killing -- far more attention than most homicides in Los Angeles receive.

Karas' family and others in the Coptic Christian community alerted the FBI to the case, and they are grateful for the increased attention. Family members particularly suspect a racial motive because they say no money was taken from the cash register.

"It is certainly reassuring to know that not only the local police are involved," said Basem Wasef, Karas' nephew. "We've never been involved with anything like this before. ... It's nice to know we have the FBI and the [deputy] sheriffs looking into it."

Still, community and activist groups say not all these cases receive the law enforcement attention they deserve. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, for example, insists that last week's killing of Abdullah Mohammed Nimer in South Central Los Angeles was a hate crime. But the LAPD believes otherwise; Det. Bill Fallon said Nimer's ethnicity was "totally unrelated" to his murder.

"We are treating this as a simple robbery," Fallon said.

Until the cases are solved -- and sometimes even then -- the motives of the criminals will not be known. Convenience stores, service stations, restaurants and small markets make tempting targets for property and violent crime even in more placid times.

Criminals' words may show motive

But some who study hate crimes and some law enforcement leaders said they have little doubt that hate will prove the motivating force behind many of the recent acts of violence.

"There are several indicators used by police departments and the FBI to establish if an offense is hate-motivated and often it is the words of the perpetrators," said Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center of Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University in Boston. "In many of these crimes, the perpetrators speak with their actions rather than their words. ... My guess is that most of these are hate crimes."

Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks agreed.

"The type of hate crime is a concern," Parks said. "Our top three hate crimes historically [have] been race, religion and [sexual] orientation. Almost exclusively since the 11th, it's been nationality and culture and hate incidents where people are acting out against someone who they think is Middle Eastern."

Regardless of what percentage of the current rash of crimes against Middle Easterners turns out to be ethnically motivated, proponents of hate crime laws argue that their importance is less statistical than psychological. In that sense, the crimes are analogous to terrorism itself.

"Terrorists send a message, hate mongers send a message," Levin said. "The numbers are small, but it only takes a small number to make life miserable for a large number of people."

As Parks noted, the vandal who paints a swastika on a synagogue commits a relatively minor crime, an act of vandalism. But the effect of that vandalism is far greater than forcing the temple to paint over a wall; it is to terrorize a congregation, a community.

Nagwa Ibrahim, community outreach director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Southern California, said many of the recent cases probably won't result in criminal charges, but they are nonetheless traumatizing.

In the end, activists and police agreed that they may never know what caused many of the crimes committed in recent weeks. They suggested that more uniform laws and better reporting would help police, politicians and community groups track hate crimes and respond to them.

In the meantime, the effort to establish a motive in as many of the recent cases as possible is worth it, they argued--both for the comfort it provides the victims and the community and for the information it gives leaders.

"I think there's great importance to knowing," said Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center. "Policymakers need to know the size and shape of the problem in order to deal with it. Two years from now, scholars will be looking back and they won't be able to quantify this in any meaningful way ... and that really is too bad."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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