Cops are going undercover and watching social media to combat hate crimes
In Redwood City, a man slugged a gas station employee and told police he did it because he wanted to hit a Mexican.
In Danville, a black student walked into a restroom at Monte Vista High School and found someone had scrawled the words “colored” and “whites” over separate urinals.
In Orange County, a local Republican official faced bipartisan scorn after she wrote on Facebook that she did not “want any type of Muslims in our country.”
Then, over the Thanksgiving Day holiday, numerous California mosques received handwritten letters that threatened the genocide of Muslims and praised President-elect Donald Trump.
Since election day, there have been reports in California and across the country of hate crimes, ugly verbal confrontations and other incidents. The election was one of the most divisive in modern history, punctuated with issues over illegal immigration, Muslims and treatment of women.
Despite numerous high-profile incidents, officials said they don’t know whether there are actually more hate crimes since the election or whether they are simply getting more attention.
Law enforcement agencies are trying to get ahead of the problem. Some are launching task forces to quickly investigate hate allegations. San Francisco, for example, is sending undercover officers into neighborhoods to see if they become the victims of hate crimes. It’s similar to a program the department launched to reduce sport-related violence by having undercover cops wearing rival team gear during playoffs.
Other agencies are stepping up outreach efforts to encourage people to report hate crimes and incidents of bigotry that are likely protected by the 1st Amendment, but that officials still vowed to investigate.
“In times of turmoil, in times of uncertainty, in times of strife, hate crimes increase. The fear of other is very, very strong in humanity,” Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said. “This cannot stand. This cannot be something we allow as a people.”
Over the last week, law enforcement agencies throughout California have launched a public awareness campaign hoping to deter the perpetrators of hate crimes and to remind victims that they should feel safe in reporting such incidents to police.
Authorities in Los Angeles and San Francisco are monitoring social media comments that might rise to the level of a criminal threat or serve as a precursor of a hate crime.
San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascon said he hopes the efforts will not only deter criminal activity but also make those who fear being targeted feel safer.
“There are several things that are very concerning. The fear level that has been impacting a lot of communities … people are not going out into certain places,” Gascon said. “You’re seeing Muslim women afraid to wear their traditional garb.”
Experts say hate crimes are generally considered underreported, in part because the victims either speak poor English or fear that interaction with law enforcement might spark questions about their immigration status.
As a result, it’s difficult to get a clear sense of hate crime trends. But one thing is clear: Even before the presidential election cycle, hate crime reports were rising both nationally and in California.
Reported hate crimes throughout the U.S. rose 7% in 2015, according to the FBI. Incidents specifically targeting Muslims grew the most, with 257 reported incidents last year compared with 154 the year before. In California, hate crime reports increased by 10.4% in 2015, according to the state attorney general’s office.
Officials are quick to point out that there is a difference between a hate crime and cruel or hurtful comments, many of which are protected under the 1st Amendment. The law makes it illegal to physically harm someone based on his or her race, religion, national origin, gender or sexual orientation, among other characteristics.
But Gascon and Beck also urged people to report incidents that might not be prosecutable but still might constitute racist or bigoted behavior. Police want to track those as well, and hope that by collecting information on racist behavior and speaking out against it, they can battle back what some call the “normalization” of hate.
“This is a new world for law enforcement,” Beck said. “We have people that monitor social media particularly in and around the things that we think may be related to hate crimes, and then we make value judgments based on the law.”
In September, the LAPD, the Rand Corp. and a group of British researchers announced plans to monitor millions of tweets related to the L.A. area in an effort to identify patterns and markers that prejudice-motivated violence is about to occur in real time. The researchers then will compare the data against records of reported violent acts.
The academics said the program could help determine whether police can predict when and where hate crimes are likely to occur and deploy law enforcement resources to prevent them.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week announced the establishment of a special police unit to investigate hate crimes and established a hotline for potential victims to call.
The Southern Poverty Law Center last week reported 701 incidents of harassment since Trump’s win, with most occurring in the first three days following the election. Of those, 206 incidents were anti-immigrant and 51 were anti-Muslim.
There also were 27 reported anti-Trump incidents, according to the SPLC.
Civil rights advocates say identifying perpetrators of hate crimes is difficult.
“In general the majority of hate crimes are not perpetrated by card-carrying members of racist organizations,” said Joanna Mendelson, an investigative researcher with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “There are so many more incidents that are perpetrated by your juveniles, by your neighborhood bigots. But they’re not members of your National Socialist Movement or your local KKK.”
Trump has disavowed support from prominent white supremacists, including former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, though critics say his outspoken views have contributed to the tense political atmosphere. In an interview with “60 Minutes” given days after the election, Trump also said he was “saddened” by reports of increased bias attacks.
“And I say, ‘Stop it.’ … I will say right to the cameras: ‘Stop it,’” Trump said.
Some experts on extremism hope Trump will do more.
“We would like to see a speech addressing this specifically, not just saying the words ‘Stop it,’” said Brian Levin, executive director of the Cal State San Bernardino Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.
Aside from a call for unity from Trump, other activists called for greater outreach from local police. Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in the greater Los Angeles area, said he would like to see police and prosecutors visiting local mosques and schools in an effort to assuage fears.
Ayloush said many of the incidents reported to CAIR after the election involved harassment rather than violence. Muslims in Los Angeles, Riverside and Orange counties have reported at least 15 incidents to CAIR, saying they were screamed at for wearing religious garb in public or received anti-Islamic slurs in recent weeks, according to Ayloush.
One Muslim college professor walked into class and found a note on his desk that read, “this is not your country, this is Trump’s country,” Ayloush said.
Over the last few days, at least four mosques around California received copies of a handwritten letter addressed to “the children of Satan” that called Muslims a “vile and filthy people.”
“Your day of reckoning has arrived,” the letter states, according to CAIR. “There’s a new sheriff in town — President Donald Trump. He’s going to cleanse America and make it shine again. And, he’s going to start with you Muslims.”
“There’s a lot of concern today,” Ayloush said. “When I visit people at mosques, people are worried, especially people who are visibly Muslim.”
Law enforcement officials and Muslim leaders will discuss the letters during a news conference Monday at the Islamic Center of Southern California.
Follow @JamesQueallyLAT for crime and police news in California.
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