Panel Seeks to Raise Awareness of Hate Crimes
Declaring that hate crimes often are not reported by police and victims in California, members of a new state commission said Wednesday that they will focus on ways to ensure that crimes motivated by bigotry are no longer overlooked by officials and communities.
“Consciousness needs to be raised throughout the state,” said Joseph McNamara, a former San Jose police chief who co-chairs the attorney general’s Civil Rights Commission on Hate Crimes. “One of our objectives is to impress on people that hate crimes do occur, and they need to be reported.”
The 44-member commission, which met in the attorney general’s downtown Los Angeles office, includes academics, heads of community groups, government officials, prosecutors and police chiefs from throughout the state.
California law considers a hate crime to be any illegal act motivated, even partly, by race, religion, sexual orientation or physical or mental disabilities, and requires that they be reported.
Many towns and cities, however, may not report hate crimes because they fear doing so would tarnish their image, according to Fred Persily, executive director of the California Assn. of Human Relations Organizations, who serves as a consultant to the commission.
Police departments may also focus narrowly on crimes such as assaults without pursuing the possibility that such offenses might be hate crimes. That, Persily told the group, can keep a community from learning of tensions among residents.
Ali Modarres, a Cal State L.A. demographer who has studied hate crime patterns in Los Angeles County, said that nationwide only 15% of law enforcement agencies report hate crimes. In California, Modarres said, a majority of police departments say such offenses do not occur in their jurisdictions or they do not report hate crime data.
In 1998, 19 out of 45 police departments that shared information on such offenses with the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission reported zero hate crimes.
Persily told commission members that communities may avoid reporting hate crimes for several reasons. Civic leaders and officials fear that publicity about hate crimes could hurt businesses or prompt flight from a city’s school system. Local politicians also fear that they will be blamed for the crimes.
Rialto Police Chief Mike Meyers said the commission needs to alert local officials that hate crimes “can’t be swept under the rug.”
Crime victims may also fail to report hate crimes. Some fear deportation, while others may not want their sexual orientation to be revealed. Some victims may not trust police and some may fear retaliation from their attackers, according to Persily.
Modarres said the commission should push for legislation to fund training programs that would teach police and local officials how to properly identify, report and respond to hate crimes.
The commission plans to issue recommendations for improving hate crime reporting within one year. It will then take up other hate crime prevention issues, said Louis Verdugo, the assistant attorney general working with the commission.
While the full commission is scheduled to meet only four times, commissioners will hold at least 15 public hearings throughout the state. Commission member Robin Toma, acting executive director of the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission, said the group will conduct hearings in small towns and rural areas as well as big cities. “We’re trying to ensure that this will not be just experts pontificating, but that we’ll reach out to communities often not heard from,” Toma said.
Along with McNamara, the commission is co-chaired by actor Edward James Olmos. Its honorary chairman is Fred Korematsu, who challenged the World War II imprisonment of Japanese Americans before the U.S. Supreme Court. Los Angeles members include Salam Al-Marayati of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center Director Gwenn Baldwin, Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and lawyer Connie Rice.