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Orange County

Panel Sees Big Drop in Bigotry Reports

Anti-Arab harassment surged after 9/11 but has apparently subsided, judging by type of complaint.

May 16, 2003|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

Orange County authorities recorded a steep decline in reports of alleged ethnic harassment, reversing last year's post-9/11 surge in anti-Arab bigotry, according to a report by the Orange County Human Relations Commission released Thursday.

In the last year, according to the report, 124 people said they were targeted by acts of bigotry, down from 181 the previous year.

More acts of alleged bigotry were reported by Jews and African Americans than any other group, including Middle Easterners and Muslims, the report said.

Jews reported being victims of bigotry 33 times last year, African Americans 24 times. Gays and lesbians reported 19 incidents, Middle Easterners 15 and Latinos eight. Eight white residents and four Asians or Pacific Islanders also reported that they were victimized.

Native Americans and Jehovah's Witnesses each reported one incident.

Most of the incidents reported occurred at a home; others happened in public places such as shopping malls or the workplace. Many involved vandalism, assault and criminal threats made mostly by white men younger than 19, the report said.

Two months ago, Greg Harris, 53, a computer systems installer, awoke after hearing cheers outside his Anaheim Hills home. Harris, who is African American, and his wife, Evelyn, 53, went outside and found a burning 8-foot cross.

The couple, who spoke at the commission's news conference Thursday, said they initially felt fear, then anger. But , they've decided to spread a message of hope rather than hate.

"The concern for me is that a black child hearing about this can take away a very negative message that despite years of change, things are the same as they were in the 1940s," Harris said. "But then that child needs to know about the dozens and dozens of sincere greetings we got from people who were just as shocked about this as we were."

No one has been arrested in the cross burning.

Though the decline in the number of hate crimes and incidents was welcomed, it may also be true that such crimes are occurring but go unreported, said Placentia Police Chief Russ Rice, a commission member.

"The concern for law enforcement is that if the numbers are low, they may not be reflective of what's going on in the community," he said.

Not all the reported incidents involved a hate crime. Some included forms of harassment.

Of the 124 incidents reported by the commission, 75 are classified as hate crimes. The remaining 49 included distribution of hate literature, harassing phone calls and other hate speech, said Rusty Kennedy, the commission's executive director.

"As a commission, we have to be interested in indicators," Kennedy said. "If you see vandalism or hate literature and hear about threats being made, it's an indicator that you have a problem and you may want to start with some preventive programs."

Last year, out of 19 suspected hate crimes referred to the Orange County district attorney's office, 16 were actually filed as hate crimes and investigations for three are pending.

Valerie Jenness, a UC Irvine professor of criminology who is on the commission's nonprofit fund-raising board, assessed how police officers are trained to enforce hate crime statutes in their jurisdictions.

A key matter, Jenness said, is to find out how many departments have hate crime policies, an indication of how serious the agencies are about the statutes. In Orange County, nearly 72% of the agencies have policies on hate crimes, compared with a state average of about 50%, Jenness said.

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