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Seattle's hate crimes widespread, happen more often than thought

Seattle's hate crimes widespread, happen more often than thought

By Scott Gutierrez
August 22, 2008

But according to a recent city audit, they happen even more often than we thought. And nearly every Seattle neighborhood has had at least one hate crime reported on its streets in the past two years.

The report, by the City Auditor's Office, focused on the Police Department's effectiveness in responding to hate crimes. It also compared Seattle's practices with those of several other cities around the country.

For the most part, the first city audit of Seattle Enforcement of Bias Crimes credited officials for responses demonstrating a no-tolerance-of-intolerance policy. But it also said that police need to do a better job tracking hate crimes and called for a more coordinated effort from city agencies to prevent them.

Seattle police documented 79 hate or bias crimes in 2006 and 2007. Every neighborhood but Northgate and Magnolia/Interbay had at least one report, although most were centered downtown and on Capitol Hill, according to the report.

Hate crimes were less than 1 percent of the 80,000 crimes reported in the past two years, and police say there is no sign of an upward trend. But law enforcement agencies pay close attention because hate crimes can intimidate entire groups and spark racial or cultural tensions, according to the audit.

"Unlike a lot of other crimes, bias crimes really reverberate through select communities in the city," said City Councilman Nick Licata, who requested the audit with council members Tom Rasmussen and Sally Clark. "One incident in one neighborhood can affect thousands of people's perceptions of how they're going to be treated."

Most hate crimes in Seattle targeted blacks or people perceived as gay, according to the report.

Suspects often are tough to identify, particularly with assaults, which tend to happen at night and when people have been drinking, authorities say.

Only 27 arrests were made. Twenty of those cases were referred to King County prosecutors, who filed charges in 13 cases. Of those, nine people were convicted. Two cases were dismissed, one for mental health reasons, and two are pending.

Ten cases were referred for misdemeanor charges to the City Attorney Office. Charges were filed in six cases, and one defendant was convicted. Three others are pending, according to the audit.

The number of hate crimes appeared to nearly double from 2006, but auditors think that is because of missing data.

From July to November 2006, police had no record of hate crimes. But auditors uncovered six reports that had not been forwarded to the Bias Crimes Coordinator, a detective who investigates and logs such reports in a database, and think there are more to be found.

While it was a small number, it suggested lapses in the department's monitoring of the problem. In the past year, concerns were raised over assaults that police didn't correctly document as hate crimes.

Department policy requires that supervisors, the media relations unit, the bias crimes coordinator and precinct commanders be notified when a hate crime is reported, said Capt. Dave Emerick, who oversees the Violent Crimes Unit.

The audit confirmed several findings of a 2006 independent study by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Transgender Community Center’s Hate Crimes Awareness Project that analyzed statistics from 2000 to 2005.

Study co-author Ken Molsberry initially began the research after a man in his Ballard neighborhood was beaten in 2004 because of his sexual orientation.

Molsberry, a data analyst for the city, started filing public records requests on his personal time after having trouble accessing the information from the police department.

"In order to address the problem of bias attacks, people have to know how often and where they happen. Our first source is the Police Department and it's critical that police gather that information and report it to public," he said.

Under Washington's felony malicious harassment law, hate crimes are considered any threats of bodily harm, physical assaults or vandalism against someone based on protected classifications such as race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. Seattle's municipal code has a misdemeanor version with a more comprehensive list that includes parental status, age and homelessness.

The audit identified several areas needing improvement:

# Documenting and tracking "incidents" not rising to the level of a crime, such as distributing racist pamphlets or displaying signs. While these are protected by the First Amendment, awareness of them could enable the city to head off more serious problems. Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles County and Portland publish reports on incidents, as well as crimes.

# Publishing regular reports on hate crimes.

# Creating a central coordinator for all of the city's anti-bias efforts, including education, crime prevention and outreach.

Seattle police have already made efforts to improve training with a 20-minute video for officers to review, Emerick said. The video was produced in conjunction with Senior Deputy Prosecutor Mike Hogan, the county's hate crimes prosecutor.

Training is critical because many officers have never investigated a hate crime, Hogan said.

When police miss the hate crime element in cases, it's usually because the officer didn't check the "bias crime" box on a report, or the victim didn't disclose slurs that their assailant used, he said.

"Police aren't going to come up to you and say, 'Do you think you were attacked because you were gay?' That could be construed as bias by the police."

Some victims mistakenly think that to report a hate crime, they'll be forced to disclose personal information, Hogan said.

"Under the law, it doesn't matter if the perpetrator is right or wrong. All that matters is what was said," Hogan said.

Click here to access our national hate crimes database with statistics from the FBI for every state.