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Hate crimes in Sacramento County have increased by 66 percent since 2014

Racist note left at Elk Grove salon

Salon owner describes the note an employee found Tuesday on the business' door.
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Salon owner describes the note an employee found Tuesday on the business' door.

In September, Sharie Thompson received a racist note taped to the front door of her Elk Grove salon, threatening that a “coon hunt” was coming for the African American hair stylist and her staff.

“Gonna get ya soon” read the note, written in black crayon.

The incident was one of 25 hate crimes reported by law enforcement in Sacramento County last year, according to a report released this week by the state Department of Justice. Since 2014, hate crimes in Sacramento County increased by 66 percent, mirroring a statewide uptick.

The number of hate crimes reported in California jumped more than 17 percent from 2016 to 2017, the third straight year of double-digit increases. Local law enforcement agencies across California reported 1,093 hate crimes last year, the first time since 2011 that the number has exceed 1,000.

“In America right now ... do I feel safe?” Thompson said this week. “Absolutely not.”

Thompson said that while she hasn’t received any more letters, she has since experienced other incidents of racial harassment.

In the city of Sacramento, there were five official hate crimes in 2017 — though police said there were many more documented incidents that didn’t rise to the level of chargeable offenses. The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department reported 11 hate crimes, but could not immediately provide details. Elk Grove reported four events — including Thompson’s.

No arrest has been made in her incident, but the investigation remains open, said Elk Grove Police Department spokesman Jason Jimenez.

Both Citrus Heights and Rancho Cordova reported two hate crimes each. One was reported by the UC Davis Medical Center.

In Placer County, Roseville reported 19 hate crimes.

While the most common motivator for hate crimes was an individual’s race or ethnicity, crimes involving bias against religion and sexual orientation also increased.

Basim Elkarra, director of the Sacramento chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said his organization has seen “a historic rise in hate crimes and all hate incidents around the country.”

Locally, “we deal with so many cases,” Elkarra said. “There are hate letters that come into the mosques on a regular basis. Things are happening all the time.”

Elkarra’s office was the target of one of those incidents. Last June, a container with a copy of the Muslim holy book, the Quran, submerged in lard, was mailed to his office.

“I’m not surprised in this current environment that people are thinking that because they know that Muslims don’t eat pork that it is going to hurt us or affect us,” he said. “I was disappointed that people would be willing to waste money to spread hate.”

Sacramento Police Department spokesman Eddie Macaulay said that Elkarra’s incident didn’t involve a crime (and is therefore not in the statistics reported by the Department of Justice), but the department investigated it anyway. They found the likely mailer in Texas, tracing the package through Federal Express and using surveillance footage from where it was mailed.

“It’s distasteful and it’s wrong; however, the criminality on the face value is probably not there,” Macaulay said. “(But) that person is now in our system and on our radar.”

Macaulay said the department is asking people to report all bias encounters and pushing for more transparency around hate crimes in order to encourage more victims to report them — even if the events don’t rise to the level of a crime.

Last month, the department began posting reported incidents on its website as part of a national project with The Police Foundation, a law enforcement think tank.

Macaulay said in coming weeks, the department will add more than a dozen other incidents to that database to reflect all encounters in which the victim feels bias was a factor — the standard Sacramento officers are required to use to classify hate crimes and incidents.

“We show what is actually being reported so people can see (that) this is occurring and we are looking into it,” he said. “The ultimate goal is ... to make people more comfortable reporting.”

One reason for the increase in hate crimes may be more people coming forward to report them, as well as protocols such as Sacramento’s mandating how officers flag bias complaints, said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

David Heitstuman, executive director of the Sacramento LGBT Community Center, said hate crimes can have effects on the entire community, making both reporting and follow up by authorities essential.

“It is simply their existence that has caused another person to commit a crime against them, and that is something you can’t outrun, you can’t hide from,” Heitstuman said.

When crimes aren’t fully investigated and prosecuted, “the importance of that incident is diminished and psychologically to our community, (LGBT people) feel their value is diminished as well,” Heitstuman said.

Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert did not prosecute any hate crimes in 2017, though seven were referred to her office, according to the state report. Four of those cases were prosecuted without the hate crimes charges.

The Department of Justice report showed 50 percent of cases in California referred to prosecutors in 2017 as hate crimes were prosecuted with those charges, a decline from 56 percent the previous year.

Sacramento County District Attorney’s spokeswoman Shelly Orio said the person who handles such cases was out of the office, and Orio was unable to provide details on why hate crime charges were not pursued.

The office is prosecuting at least one hate crime this year in the case of two men assaulted in a bar during an attack that left one victim with a “useless” eye and involved homophobic slurs, according to court documents. The defendant in that case, Valentino Valles, faces a preliminary hearing Friday.

Levin said it was not uncommon for district attorneys to drop the hate charges and pursue only the underlying event because it can be harder to win convictions on hate crimes.

Heitstuman said it was “troublesome” that none of the referred cases were prosecuted as hate crimes.

“It’s really frustrating,” he said. “If the prosecutor doesn’t pursue it as a hate crime, and you are sort of made to feel like you should be happy that something is happening to this person ... that is essentially (bias) being tolerated.”

While the majority of bias-related incidents occur on streets or near victims’ homes, the Department of Justice report also noted increases at schools and playgrounds.

Incidents at grade schools accounted for close to 8 percent of the 1,093 cases reported in California last year. In 2017, the number of hate crimes in schools leaped from 42 to 68 — a 39 percent increase from the year before.

Statewide, there has been a 102 percent increase over the past four years in the number of reported hate crimes at places of worship, such as churches, temples and synagogues.

Elkarra said his organization has tracked an upturn in bullying of Muslim students in Sacramento and three other large California cities and found a dramatic increase in past years, “especially (among) young ladies who wear the head scarf,” he said.

A 2016-2017 study of more than 1,000 Muslim students ages 11-18 found that 36 percent of girls said they’d had their head scarves tugged, pulled or offensively touched, up 7 percentage points since a prior survey in 2014.

Nineteen percent of Muslim kids surveyed said they had been physically harmed or harassed at school because of their religion, up 10 percentage points from the prior survey.

Levin said he attributes that jump to young people mimicking adult behavior. “Kids will parrot what they see in the mainstream,” he said. “We are now having intense manifestations of bigotry and incivility in socio-political discourse.”

Orlando Fuentes, an Elk Grove resident who is running for City Council, said he sees a connection between rhetoric in national politics and incidents in the local community.

Fuentes said he believes President Donald Trump’s invective language is a contributing factor to less civility among citizens. Trump ran a campaign that challenged the notion of “political correctness” and has attacked people in his speeches and on social media.

“It’s that kind of demeaning discourse that is concerning,” Fuentes said. “It’s frequent and daily.”

According to Heitstuman, “the Trump effect really has emboldened people to speak their hateful minds in a ... way, and that is leading to more action.”

Levin said that while the president’s rhetoric has had a measurable correlation with hate crimes at specific times (including a spike in Muslim hate crimes immediately following a speech by Trump announcing the proposed Muslim travel ban, according to his research), the reasons for the increasing numbers likely are more complicated.

He points out that hate crimes began rising in 2014, before Trump was in office.

“Breathtaking” diversity in California, viral incidents on social media, a growing presence of hate groups in the state and breakdowns in trust in institutions such as the government and the press likely are factors, he said.

“I don’t want to let politicians totally off the hook,” Levin said. “When we have negative stereotypes about different groups, and there is a drumbeat that has entered the social and political mainstream, that is going to have an effect.”

Imam Yousef Hussin at Masjid Annur Islamic Center in Sacramento reacts to recent hate crimes.

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