Hate crimes in Los Angeles County rose to their highest level in five years last year, led by attacks between Latinos and blacks, officials said Thursday.
The annual report by the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission showed hate crimes rose by 28%, to 763, with vandalism and assault leading the way.
In what commission Executive Director Robin Toma called an alarming trend, hate crimes based on race, religion and sexual orientation all rose, increasing against nearly all groups -- including blacks, gays, Jews, Mexicans, whites and Asians -- even as crime in general declined.
The largest number of racial hate crimes involved Latino suspects against black victims, followed by black suspects against Latino victims. Latinos also made up the largest number of suspects in hate crimes based on sexual orientation. Whites were the leading suspects in religion-based incidents. Overall, blacks made up nearly half the hate crime victims, totaling 310.
"What we're seeing is the democratization of hate crimes," said Brian Levin, who directs the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino. "We're not only seeing a diversification of victims but also increased diversification of offenders."
Police agencies report hate crimes to the county, but because departments vary on when they pursue hate-crime charges, variations in hate-crime numbers can stem from an actual increase in crimes or from changes in reporting. In this case, experts said they believed that hate crimes themselves, not just the reporting of them, are rising.
Levin said other areas of the country have reported similar increases, including a 30% increase in New York last year; a 10-year study published last fall found that hate crimes in New York began to increase two years ago after declining over several years.
Levin said several factors may be driving the rise, including deepening economic distress, growing ethnic diversity and population density in neighborhoods and what he called "increasingly inflammatory rhetoric" over illegal immigration.
Amanda F. Susskind, Pacific Southwest regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in Los Angeles, said hate rhetoric is rising online and is particularly targeting youth, perpetuated in part by as many as 110 white supremacist organizations nationwide.
The rhetoric appears to be influencing other groups, Toma said. He cited law enforcement reports that some Latino gang members who targeted blacks in the Harbor Gateway area of Los Angeles were found with neo-Nazi material and some Latino gangs were forming alliances with white supremacists in prisons to prey on blacks.
Despite the intense national debate over illegal immigration, hate crimes against immigrants decreased slightly from 42 to 39. However, the report noted that some crimes may "be inspired by anti-immigrant animus but it may not be explicitly verbalized."
The report noted, for instance, that as of last August, Pasadena police had investigated 69 crimes involving attacks against Latinos, many of them low-wage immigrant workers who were robbed and beaten, allegedly by African Americans. But none of the cases were submitted to the county commission for inclusion in the hate crime report this year.
The report quoted a statement by acting Pasadena Police Chief Christopher Vicino that investigators had theorized the crimes were racially motivated, but it was "impossible to meet the legal criteria required" for hate crimes in many cases, such as concrete evidence that prejudice was a substantial factor in the attack.
Incidents against Muslims and people from the Middle East, which increased after the 2001 terrorist attacks and drove reported hate crimes to their highest level ever in Los Angeles County, also fell last year to seven from 25 the previous year. Salam Al-Marayati of the Muslim Public Affairs Council welcomed the decline but said a recent Gallup Poll showed anti-Muslim hostility had increased by 16% in the last two years, which he blamed in part on "anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric" by some presidential candidates and their supporters.
The county report found that the largest number of religion-based hate crimes was directed against Jews. In its own survey released in March, the ADL found anti-Semitic incidents declined last year to 186 from 204. The incidents included the defacing of L.A. City Councilman Jack Weiss' office in Sherman Oaks with swastikas.
One of the most worrisome findings, commissioners said, was the rising number of hate crimes between Latinos and blacks -- many of them driven by gang hostility.
The report found that a third of suspected Latino-on-black crimes and 42% of suspected black-on-Latino crimes involved gangs. The crimes were increasingly violent last year, including two attempted murders.
Asked what can prevent hate crimes, the Rev. Eric P. Lee of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles offered another answer.
"Pray," he said. "How else do you change someone's heart? Hatred is a spiritual wickedness."