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Dropping Charges Against Sheriff’s Dept., D.A.'s Office

On Sept. 11, Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi said no hate-crime charges would be filed in the Amber Jefferson case. The 15-year-old high school sophomore had already become something of a cause celebre, with some people claiming that an attack on her a month earlier had been racially motivated.

While not specifically criticizing the district attorney for not filing hate-crime charges (his office did file other charges against an alleged assailant), I knocked both Capizzi’s office and the Sheriff’s Department for doing a lousy job of handling the whole thing. I suggested that perception counts for a lot in potentially explosive cases and that they should have been more attuned to it from the beginning of the Amber Jefferson incident.

With the trial for Amber’s alleged attacker set for early next year, it’s time to give some belated but well-deserved credit, especially to the Sheriff’s Department.

Last week, Assistant Sheriff Dennis LaDucer acknowledged to a Times reporter that the department fumbled the ball early in its handling of the case. While that remark is in itself a heartening sign of openness, it wasn’t just a public relations comment--it has been backed up by some concrete action.

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Beginning shortly after the Amber Jefferson incident, LaDucer and other Sheriff’s Department officials met with representatives of the county’s Human Relations Commission. Early on, according to Rusty Kennedy, the commission’s executive director, LaDucer conceded the department could have handled the Jefferson case better.

But from there, LaDucer went on to tell Kennedy the department wanted to form a policy for dealing with potential hate crimes. Having done just that with various police departments in the county--but never with the Sheriff’s Department--Kennedy was only too happy to oblige.

Kennedy recalls: “Dennis drafted a procedure for handling hate crimes and sent it over to us for comment. Sending it to us for comment was not something they had ever done before. We made suggestions, and they implemented all the changes.”

Later on, Sheriff Brad Gates and about 20 of his top officials met with Kennedy and others and discussed hate crimes in general, even hashing over the Amber Jefferson case. “They were very receptive,” Kennedy said. “They were very interested in knowing why we felt the Amber Jefferson case was a hate-related crime when their officer on the scene’s best judgment was that other things motivated it. There was a learning process going on, but it was very amiable. They were very positive as to what they were hearing.”

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Kennedy explained that while the Jefferson case may not have been a hate crime in a strictly legal sense, other existing factors led him to consider it hate-related--a position he still holds.

Ironically, shortly after that unprecedented meeting, the Laguna Hills home of the Delano De Silva family, which is black, was vandalized and spray-painted with racial epithets. A sheriff’s deputy joined others at a press conference a few days later to decry the incident. Gates and Capizzi added separate condemnations.

It was an excellent response, sending out a strong signal at a time when racial and ethnic incidents seem to happen too often.

Obviously, Gates and Capizzi aren’t going to help skinheads and pinheads find religion over race relations, but it’s vital that they lend their substantial weight to condemning such things. For too long, this county has been portrayed as a haven for bigots--a national reputation that diminishes all of us.

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The county is still wending its way along a path toward an increasingly diverse community. Along that path, other Amber Jeffersons and Delano De Silvas are bound to occur. In some instances, the degree of the hate crime will be obvious--such as in the De Silva case--or less clear--as in the Jefferson case.

For that reason, the public and press sometimes may make misjudgments about the role of racism or ethnic bigotry in any given case.

Kennedy said he would never knowingly label something a hate crime that wasn’t. However, he added: “It seems to me the worst scenario is if it’s a hate crime and we refuse to acknowledge it and nobody looks into it and figures it out and we never do anything about it. And that’s been the norm. If there are cases where we look at the evidence we learn from second-hand accounts from the newspapers and people who talk to us--and if with that information we make some wrong judgments about whether things are racially motivated--I don’t think that’s a major crime for inter-ethnic relations in the county, because many more (hate crimes) are going on that people aren’t aware of.”

I-HATE-WHEN-THIS-HAPPENS: In last Sunday’s column, I said Curt Pringle lost his bid for reelection in the 71st state Assembly District. As any child of 4 knows, the election was in the 72nd District.

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