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Hate crime reports more than double in Sonoma County

Sonoma County’s municipal law enforcement agencies reported 25 hate crimes last year, up from 11 last year. About 40% were related to anti-Black bias.|

When Sebastopol resident Dennis Judd heard about the vandalism of a fountain he commissioned to honor his mother, a Holocaust survivor who died in 2016, it was hard for him to believe the crime was a mere coincidence.

Behind the fountain, which was found toppled and in pieces at Santa Rosa Memorial Park in June of last year, was a mosaic that named 12 of his mother’s family members who were killed during the genocide.

Police have yet to determine whether the vandalism met the definition of a hate crime, but there were 25 other cases in Sonoma County last year that did.

That number was more than double the number that occurred the year before, according to data released by the FBI.

As police investigated the fountain vandalism, and two others at the cemetery, Judd focused his efforts on rebuilding the fountain.

A month later, after donations to a GoFundMe fundraiser seeking help for the repair poured in, the fountain was spouting water again.

“I think whenever society is challenged, economically or with the pandemic, that makes it easier to come up with blame and hate,” Judd said. “And I think the message that needs to be put back out in society, as my mom would talk in her talks about the Holocaust, it was learn to deal with your anger before it translates into hatred.”

More than a year later, the case has gone cold due to a lack of evidence and a suspect, Santa Rosa Police Department spokesman Sgt. Chris Mahurin said.

Of the 25 hate crimes last year, four were anti-Jewish.

Reports of hate crimes motivated by anti-Black bias were the biggest driver of the local increase; a spike that coincided with a national and local reckoning over disproportionate toll of police violence on Black men and women, and other communities of color.

Statewide and national data show similar trends.

Teresa Drenick, the deputy regional director for the Anti-Defamation League’s Central Pacific region, said increased sensitivity over racial issues in the wake of the local protests, as well as the rise in attacks on Asian American and Pacific Islander community following the COVID-19 pandemic have likely contributed to the rise in hate crime reporting last year.

“Awareness and urgency to make those reports were heightened in the wake of the social justice movement,” Drenick said. “And also, coincidentally, the overt nature of hate crimes really exploded.”

News item: An unidentified person or group hijacks a Zoom meeting on homeless solutions hosted by the leadership council of Home Sonoma County on July 10, 2020. The digital intruders repeatedly say anti-Black and anti-Semitic slurs, as well as derogatory comments about the LGBT community.

Hate crimes are defined as offenses that are at least partly motivated by the perpetrator’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender or gender identity, according to the FBI.

Unlike hate speech, which directs hatred against a specific group, hate crimes include overt acts of violence, threats, acts of intimidation or plans to commit a crime.

In 2020, data from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and the county’s nine municipal law enforcement agencies showed that 10 cases were related to anti-Black bias; four were anti-Latino; four were anti-Jewish; three were directed at gay men; two were anti-LGBT; one was anti-multiracial; and one involving “anti-other race/ethnicity/ancestry.”

In 2019, only two of the 11 hate crimes reported to Sonoma County law enforcement agencies were attributed to anti-Black hate, representing a 400% increase.

Black residents make up 1.5% of the county’s population, according to 2020 U.S. Census data.

The number of reported hate crimes in California rose 32% to 1,339 in 2020. When looking at hate crimes related to anti-Black bias, the data shows those crimes increased by 88%, going from 243 in 2019 to 458 in 2020 statewide.

Nationally, hate crimes related to anti-Black bias increased 40% between 2019 and 2020, and the hate crime category was the largest both years, as was the case for the statewide data.

Overall, hate crimes in the country increased by 40%.

Sheba Person-Whitley, executive director of Sonoma County’s Economic Development Board, said she was shocked but not surprised by the increases in anti-Black bias-related crimes.

Her daughter, who is Black and a member of the LGBT community, has faced in-person and online verbal assaults related to her identity while attending high school in Sonoma County, Person-Whitley said.

She was appalled to hear of last year’s Zoom hijacking of a Home Sonoma County meeting, an incident that prompted her to rally around two Black government leaders who were in attendance.

“Unfortunately, it’s almost baked into our culture and our society here in the United States,” Person-Whitley said. “We have people on national television saying very bigoted things with no backlash. So, if you have people who already thought that way, they might feel their perspective is validated.”

News item: A Black delivery driver pulls into a curb to drop-off a package in Rohnert Park’s E section on June 19, 2020 when a resident begins yelling racial slurs at him and threatens to kill him. Police find the suspect, but are unable to reach the victim to conduct a photo lineup.

When examining the factors that may have contributed to the local and statewide increases, Anastasia Tosouni, an associate professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice Studies at Sonoma State University, pointed to the unprecedented confluence of events last year, which saw widespread protests over the murder of George Floyd and broader calls for police reform, as well as a presidential election in which race was a central topic. All of that occurred against the backdrop of the pandemic, which disproportionately affected minority communities.

Historically, minorities, especially Black Americans, have experienced backlash in the form of hostility when they’ve asserted their rights in a strong and publicized way, Tosouni said. The country’s Civil Rights era is one example.

The heightened awareness over racial justice-related issues may have also had an impact on local police officers, who ultimately determine whether a crime merits a hate crime classification, Tosouni said.

Cases that an officer may have not classified as a hate crime in the past, such a fight in which racial slurs were made by one of the parties, may have received that classification in light of the national discourse on race, Tosouni said.

“It might be the case that hate crimes have increased against Black Americans, or it might be the case that police departments in our country, and California in general are starting to be more assertive,” Tosouni said.

News item: A Black family at Lake Sonoma finds the words “white Pride” written in the dust of their car on June 21, and a friend files an online police report. While the report is classified as a hate crime, deputies determine the vehicle is not damaged, and therefore no crime occurred.

Santa Rosa, Sonoma County’s most populous city, recorded 11 of the local hate crime reports last year, the most of any local agency, the FBI data shows.

It was more than twice as many as the five the department reported in 2019. In 2018, the department recorded six hate crimes.

The Petaluma Police Department and the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office reported six hate crimes each last year, up from four and zero in 2019, respectively. Rohnert Park and Healdsburg each accounted for one of the 25 hate crimes reported in Sonoma County last year.

Mahurin, the Santa Rosa police spokesman, said part of the increase his department experienced might have to do with its outreach to communities that have historically been hesitant to report crimes.

A year-old computer system that the officers use to write police reports, which is part of an information-sharing consortium project involving most Sonoma County’s law enforcement agencies, may also be making an impact, Mahurin said.

The system includes a section in which officers must indicate whether a crime included a hate crime component. If officers mark yes, they then have to identify the type of bias they suspect was at play.

“We have to make that decision as an agency,” Mahurin said. “Usually … we err on the side of criminal investigation.”

News item: An online report about a custody order violation in Santa Rosa last October indicates the crime included anti-Native American and/or Alaska Native bias, though the report contains no information on why. Due to the nature of the report, it is forwarded to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office to handle as a civil matter, though it is automatically classified as a hate crime by the department, police said.

A Press Democrat analysis of the hate crimes reported last year to local law enforcement shows discrepancies in how officers classified hate crime reports.

In Petaluma, for example, a U.S. Postal Service employee saw a toy monkey hung by a rope on a tree in front of a home on June 26, and police were asked to investigate.

After speaking with the homeowner, police learned that the toy animal was an ode to a spider monkey that was a family pet. He had not realized the monkey he intended as a decoration was interpreted as a racist symbol, the homeowner told The Petaluma Argus Courier.

The case was classified as a hate crime, though officers ultimately determined the monkey was only an ornament, Petaluma Police Lt. Tim Lyons said.

In a similar case earlier that month, officers responded to a report of a noose hanging on a tree near Civic Center Drive in Rohnert Park. Upon investigation, police determined the rope, which was actually tied in a fixed knot, was a swing used by neighborhood children. The report was ultimately not marked a hate crime.

“It can be reported as something, but once we do our investigation, we can determine whether it is or isn’t,” Rohnert Park Deputy Chief Aaron Johnson said.

News Item: A man accused of stealing from a Guerneville Safeway on June 22 calls an employee who confronts him homophobic slurs and threatens to kill him. The suspect is arrested by deputies.

In response to the rising number of hate crime reports throughout the state, Assembly Bill 57 seeks to require the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training to develop hate crime training in consultation with subject matter experts, including law enforcement agencies and civil rights groups.

It would also require the commission to periodically update the course to reflect changes in the law and hate crime trends, and the state’s peace officers would need to undergo the training every six years, the bill says.

The bill cites a 2018 report by the California State Auditor’s Office that found three of the four law enforcement agencies they reviewed failed to properly identify some hate crimes.

The auditors also found that while hate crime training is required during police academy training, state law does not require officers to take periodic refresher courses.

The Assembly’s hate-crime reporting bill was sponsored in part by the Anti-Defamation League.

Drenick, the deputy regional director for the local ADL office, said accurate reporting of hate crimes was vital, because data is what drives policy decisions.

How thorough police are when handling hate crime reports can signal to other marginalized communities the type of treatment they’ll receive if they are a victim of a hate crime, and can affect whether or not they call for help, she added.

“When the reporting or data collection is incomplete, or inaccurate, we’re sending the complete opposite message that we need to send,” Drenick said.

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.

Nashelly Chavez

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, The Press Democrat 

Who calls the North Bay home and how do their backgrounds, socioeconomic status and other factors shape their experiences? What cultures, traditions and religions are celebrated where we live? These are the questions that drive me as I cover diversity, equity and inclusion in Sonoma County and beyond.   

 

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