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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Hate Crime Figures Unchanged, but Officials Concerned

Police: Authorities say the number of area teens embracing racist ideology is alarming. Some leaders fear underreporting of incidents.

September 03, 2000|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite a lower overall crime rate, Ventura County continues to grapple with its level of hate crimes, particularly in Ventura where police are trying to stem the growth of teenage white-power gangs.

According to recent statistics from the California Department of Justice, 40 hate crimes were committed countywide against 52 victims last year.

The majority of those offenses involved young white men targeting blacks or Jews through threats, intimidation, vandalism or physical assaults, authorities said.

Some community leaders fear the number of hate-motivated crimes is actually much higher, but are not being reported to law enforcement because victims are afraid.

"I just truly believe there are 10% more hate crimes in Ventura County than they are reporting," said John Hatcher, president of the Ventura County chapter of the National Assn for the Advancement of Colored People. "Lots of times people do not report them because of fear of retaliation."

Ventura County law enforcement officials say race relations here are no worse than in other communities across Southern California.

But they remain concerned by the number of teenagers embracing racist ideologies and are trying to keep the county from turning into a hotbed for young white supremacist groups.

"There is a cancer growing in the youth of Ventura County," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Stacy Ratner, who has prosecuted several white supremacists in Juvenile Court. "It's very frightening."

Statewide, more than 2,000 hate crimes were reported last year against 2,436 victims, according to the state Department of Justice. Two-thirds of those incidents involved violent attacks and 60% were motivated by the victim's race or ethnicity.

In Ventura County, the number of hate crimes in 1999 remained the same as reported in 1998, with increases and decreases in individual cities.

According to Department of Justice statistics, Oxnard rose from one hate crime in 1998 to five in 1999, and Thousand Oaks saw an increase from two to four hate crimes during the same period.

Hate crimes in Camarillo dropped from six to two and in Simi Valley they fell from four to none. Hate crimes in the unincorporated areas of the county dropped from six to four.

Ojai, Moorpark and Santa Paula each reported a single hate crime last year. Of those, only Moorpark reported an incident in 1998. Port Hueneme and Fillmore reported none.

The story is different in Ventura, however.

According to the Justice Department, 22 hate crimes were reported last year within the city limits, compared to 19 the year before. That is more than the number of incidents reported in either Lancaster, Oakland or Santa Monica.

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But police say the high numbers locally are largely attributable to diligent reporting and an ongoing crackdown on white-power gangs.

"I think we have been real aggressive," said Ventura Police Lt. Carl Handy, adding that his department classifies even the slightest racially tinged incident as a hate crime.

"Some of these may not have been documented as hate crimes by other agencies, but we are biased on the side of looking at it as a hate crime," Handy said. "So obviously, that will skew the data a little bit."

Handy also noted that the department reexamined the 1999 numbers and decided the actual number of hate crimes was 20. Of those, he said, there were five batteries, four felony assaults, three incidents of weapons being brandished, four cases of vandalism and four threats.

The incidents of vandalism included slashed tires on two cars, one house being spray-painted with racial slurs and another property defaced with a swastika.

Ventura police hope the efforts of their gang suppression task force will prevent such crimes in the future.

Funded by a three-year, $1.5-million state grant, the task force is comprised of five officers, a crime analyst, two probation officers and a prosecutor. Citywide, it has targeted about 100 gang members who usually organize by area, ethnicity or ideology. As a result, their criminal activity can often be categorized as hate-motivated, officials said.

"I think when you are focusing on gang activity you are more apt to identify these things," said Lt. Ken Corney, who supervises the gang suppression team.

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Among their efforts, law enforcement officials involved in the task force say they are keeping a close eye on nine loosely organized groups of white supremacist teens who have begun to act upon their racists views.

Of the hate crimes reported in Ventura last year, about half were committed by juveniles, and of those about half were white supremacists, officials said.

Other law enforcement agencies say they are seeing a similar trend.

Ventura County Sheriff's Department Cmdr. Dick Purnell, who oversees special investigations for the department, said hate crimes are often carried out late at night by small groups of juveniles.

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