Citing a "shocking" increase in racially motivated violence in Los Angeles County, state Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp unveiled proposed civil rights legislation Friday that would toughen laws against such "crimes of hate."
In a press conference on the day after the Rev. Martin Luther King's birthday at the Second Baptist Church--the slain civil rights leader's old base of operations in Los Angeles--Van de Kamp said the bill is needed in California's "melting pot . . . where cultures are clashing, where economic interests collide."
If adopted, the proposal would convert bigotry-related misdemeanors into felonies punishable by up to three years in prison. It would also allow the courts to issue restraining orders against individuals or groups that make threats motivated by bigotry.
As conceived by the attorney general's Commission on Racial, Ethnic, Religious and Minority Violence, the law would apply whether the motives hinge on race, sex, ethnicity, religion, nationality or sexual orientation of the victims.
Van de Kamp portrayed the legislation as a single bill to be carried by Assemblyman Tom Bane (D-Tarzana), who authored previous legislation that toughened penalties for bigotry-related felonies. In a phone interview, Bane said he will carry only part of the legislation, while Assemblyman Art Agnos (D-San Francisco), a champion of gay causes, will introduce a separate bill pertaining to sexual orientation.
Bane said he expects both bills to pass the Legislature after some opposition and expects Gov. George Deukmejian to sign his bill into law.
Whether the governor will support Agnos' bill, "I don't know what to expect," he added. The governor has previously vetoed bills that would have enhanced civil penalties for discrimination against homosexuals.
Van de Kamp cited the findings of the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations, which last June reported 22 racially motivated acts of violence and vandalism in the county in the first five months of 1986. That was an increase of 280% over the the average of 5.8 such incidents for the same period from 1981 through 1985.
Msgr. William F. Barry, who serves on both the county Human Relations Commission and on the attorney general's commission, said the numbers reflect both an actual increase in such acts and a heightened sensitivity to such motives among law enforcement officers.
"It's not malarkey; it's the Real McCoy," Barry said in an interview. "It's frustrating because people out there don't know this is really going on."
The attorney general cited such 1986 incidents as harassment and vandalism against a black merchant in Glendale, who eventually was driven out of business; anti-Semitic activity among fraternities at "of all places, USC" during the university's "Greek Week"; increased reports of "gay-bashing" in San Francisco, and a rise in racial violence in the Bay Area city of Concord.
The law would be made to order, Van de Kamp said, for such incidents as the harassment of an interracial couple in Westchester. Robson and Tori Dufau endured six months of racist insults, threats, vandalism and the shooting of a pet rabbit before concern for their children's safety prompted them to move from the neighborhood.
A $5,000 reward has been offered by the Fair Housing Congress of Southern California and the Westside Fair Housing Council for information leading to the successful prosecution of those responsible for the harassment. Investigators with the attorney general's office are nearing arrests, Van de Kamp said. The attorney general made an appeal for an anonymous source, who goes by the code name "Pebbles," to resume contact with investigators.
The Dufaus' complaints were initially considered a low-priority by police, Van de Kamp said, in part because they only involved misdemeanor crimes such as malicious mischief and trespassing.
The bill would elevate such misdemeanors to the status of "wobbler" crimes, in which a judge would decide whether to treat the actions as misdemeanors or felonies, with penalties of up to three years in prison. Misdemeanors carry a maximum of six months in County Jail and in certain circumstances can be extended to a year.
In addition to stiffening the penalties for existing misdemeanors, the bill creates a new misdemeanor prohibiting bigotry-motivated threats for conduct not already covered by a specific statute.
Bane's earlier bill enhancing penalties for felonies "has proven valuable in some cases," according to Steven White, the assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division. However, the use of the statute has been spotty among law enforcement agencies throughout the the state, he said.
"Some are and some aren't using it as aggressively as they should," White said.
Passage of the new bill enhancing misdemeanor penalties would "refocus people's attention on the type of crime not to put up with," he said.
Van de Kamp said King "often saw hatred in his too short life, but he never understood it."