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Violence Against Minorities on Rise : Bias: Gay men have supplanted African Americans as the primary target of hate crimes in Los Angeles County.

May 17, 1994|DENISE HAMILTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hodges staggered down the street and fell into the first open door. It was a gay bar, whose manager called police and an ambulance. When police arrived, Hodges said, they pulled on his earrings, called him names and told him the attack was his fault. Hodges said he spent eight hours at County-USC Medical Center waiting to be treated. The assailants were never caught.

An LAPD spokesman declined to comment on the case, saying that "if conduct like that (by the officers) happened, it's inappropriate, and we have a process for dealing with that, if (Hodges) wants to file a complaint."

Hodges' scars--both physical and emotional--remain five years later. He dropped out of art school. He became estranged from friends. He broke off with his lover because, he said, he felt ugly. He tried counseling, but it did not help. He tried drawing, but the pictures were so angry, he tore them up.

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As with the attack on Hodges, many hate crimes occur at night. Assailants use a hit-and-run approach that leaves few clues. Victims, whether gays in the closet, African Americans disaffected with law enforcement or immigrants fearing deportation, often do not call the police.

Immigrants' rights groups say their clients can be deported if they report a hate crime and an investigation shows that they are here illegally. Some argue that California needs to amend its laws so that victims cannot be deported or kicked out of the military for reporting hate crimes.

Even when victims step forward, community activists say, police do not always log the incident as a hate crime--a charge the police deny. And if arrests are made and charges filed, the district attorney must prove that the defendant committed the crime and that it was motivated by hatred.

"These are among the most underreported and underprosecuted crimes around," said Brian Levin, a visiting scholar at Stanford Law School, who is legal director for the Center for the Study of Ethnic and Racial Violence.

Even county statistics are incomplete because only nine of about 40 law enforcement agencies provided data. West Covina logged 12 hate crimes last year that were not included in the countywide total of 783. West Covina police crime analyst Anne Gray said the county never requested information on hate crimes; the county said it contacts each agency.

Shafer, of the district attorney's office, said that thanks to massive media attention and education programs by community groups and law enforcement, awareness about hate crime is growing. But she likens it to the status of domestic violence and sexual assaults 10 or 15 years ago.

Levin estimates that half of all hate crimes still go unreported; in the gay community, he believes, the figure may be as high as 90%. Only about 1% are prosecuted, he said.

"Getting the line officer, who is the most cynical and least trained, to understand what constitutes a hate crime is very difficult," said Levin, a former police officer who now runs hate crime training programs for various police departments.

Cmdr. John White, the LAPD's hate crime coordinator, disagrees.

"A lot of people go around bashing the police, but I don't think there's a police department in the country that has a system as efficient as us for handling hate crimes," White said.

Each LAPD division has a hate crimes coordinator, White said. All rookies study the issue at the police academy and receive in-service training, including periodic memos from White. When a hate crime report is filed, follow-up calls are made to the victim's home.

"We try to find a nexus, a connection between the crime and the person . . . but often there's not enough evidence. If the suspect didn't say anything (racist or homophobic), it's hard to classify it as a hate crime," White said.

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Hate crimes are up, experts say, because Americans seek scapegoats for their declining living standards. Hate crimes between minority groups are rising as well as crimes against whites.

"When you get this fear and frustration, people revert back to their in-group and want to find a target for their anger," Levin said. "We still harbor stereotypes, and they're the trigger that someone who is sick or angry or frustrated can beat up on."

Society also suffers because hate crimes breed fear and distrust among groups, dividing people into either victims or perpetrators, Levin said. Hate groups recognize the fragility of the inter-group bond and how easy it is to disrupt. They know a burglary will not cause a riot but hope that a hate crime might.

Yet most perpetrators are not members of organized groups. About 85% are male, in their early or mid-teens, and lead a marginal existence, said Jack Levin, a professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University, who co-wrote "Hate Crimes, the Rising Tide of Bigotry and Bloodshed."

"Twenty years ago they might have stolen hubcaps; now they beat people up," Levin said. "They are unremarkable types, the kids down the block. Very few wear sheets or armbands or hoods."

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