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Glendale Hate-Crime Fighter Earns Civil Rights Award

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The racial slurs and swastikas had been spray-painted all over a wall of the house. The resident, an African American man who had recently arrived from out of state, called police.

That was all it took for two members of Glendale’s Hate Crime Response Team to spring into action.

Team members Chahe Keuroghelian, the Glendale Police Department’s public information officer, and Eileen Givens, a City Council member and former mayor, were notified and went to the victim’s home.

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“I told him how sorry I was and urged him not to take this as how people in Glendale felt,” Givens said. Days later, Keuroghelian surprised the man by delivering a packet of 30 letters of support written by community members--all addressed “Dear Friend” or “Dear Neighbor.”

In 1995, incidents in Glendale accounted for only 11 of Los Angeles County’s 793 recorded hate crimes. But as the 2-year-old Hate Crime Response Team demonstrates, the city takes the racially motivated incidents that do occur--mostly vandalism or threatening phone calls--very seriously, and responds with concerted community efforts.

On Thursday, the California Assn. of Human Relations Organizations, an umbrella for more than 50 groups, gave Keuroghelian the Civil Rights Leadership Award, citing his work with the response team. He is one of 12 to receive the award this year.

Among the others were the Rev. John Simmons of the Burbank Human Relations Commission, Linda Lotz of the American Friends Service Committee in Hollywood and Jimmy Tokeshi of the Japanese American Citizens League in Hollywood.

Norma Mencacci, who is on the state association’s board of directors, said Keuroghelian was chosen for “demonstrating leadership in his community to help people live free of intimidation and violence.”

Glendale officials say the city does not encounter many hate crimes. That’s why the team was created, Givens said.

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“This is an extremely safe community, and we want it safe from all kinds of crimes. The idea is to stop smaller hate crimes and get people talking to each other before tensions rise and worse things happen.”

From 1992 through 1995, Glendale averaged about nine hate crimes a year, according to statistics from the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations. In that period, the city of Los Angeles recorded an average of more than 200 a year.

The team was created in 1994 after a series of incidents, including an assault on an Armenian-speaking senior citizen, the spray-painting of an Armenian youth organization building and threats to the Armenian Social Services organization, Keuroghelian said.

Then, just as a 13-member community task force was starting discussions on how to respond to hate crimes, a Glendale synagogue, Temple Sinai, was defiled with painted swastikas.

Herman Sillas, an attorney and current task force member, said the group quickly joined to help paint over the graffiti.

“We wanted to make clear that this was not just an attack on a synagogue, but that we were all victims unless the total community responded. We needed more than talking about it in a touchy-feely kind of format.”

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On the recommendation of the task force, the city established the Hate Crime Response Team.

“We finally had to ask, ‘How many times do we have to see people hurting before we do something about it?’ ” said task force member Alice Petrossian, intercultural education director for the Glendale Unified School District.

Since then, each hate-related incident and the response team’s action have been reported to the City Council, Givens said. Victims’ names are kept confidential at all stages--only the nature of the incidents is discussed.

The responses have included letter writing, painting over graffiti and alerting the media. In the case of the African American man whose house was vandalized, Keuroghelian got the victim and the mother of the minor responsible for the damage on the phone together.

“They had a very positive discussion, and the mother apologized for her child,” Keuroghelian said. “I think the victim felt a lot safer in the neighborhood after he talked to her and realized this was just a kid from a troubled home.”

City Manager David Ramsay, a member of the task force, said Glendale has worked hard to combat a negative reputation that has lingered since the ‘60s, when there was a Nazi presence in the city.

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“Many of us were so appalled by that stereotyping,” said Ramsay. “When a hate crime occurred, it was, ‘There goes Glendale again.’ We decided to take an aggressive stand on the situation and make very public that we do not tolerate hate in this community.”

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