Hate crimes happen nearly twice a month in Valley. And that might be just tip of it

Casey Haggard, a 66-year-old transgender woman, was walking along Blackstone Avenue in central Fresno in July 2015 when she was fatally stabbed by a passenger in an SUV that pulled up alongside her.

Amrik Singh Bal, a 68-year-old Sikh, was walking in a neighborhood in west-central Fresno in December 2015 when he was attacked by a pair of men who beat him and then ran over him in a car. He survived his attack.

And on an April morning in 2017, three white men – Zackary Randals, 34, of Clovis, Mark Gassett, 37, of Fresno, and David Jackson, 58, of Fresno – were killed in a brief but deadly shooting rampage along the streets of a neighborhood north of downtown Fresno.

A stabbing, a beating and a shooting rampage – while the victims, suspects and weapons are dissimilar, each of the crimes has one key thing in common: they appear to have been motivated by the suspects’ prejudice against and hatred for people different from themselves. And in Fresno County, the number of reported hate crimes has increased almost every year since 2011.

“Hate crimes are deplorable and despicable,” said Timothy Donovan, a senior Fresno County prosecutor. “California is a very diverse state … and hate crimes undermine that. They don’t just impact the victim; they impact the entire community.”

From 2007 through 2017, 213 incidents of hate-driven crimes were reported by central San Joaquin Valley law enforcement agencies, according to data and a report released this month by the state Department of Justice. Not all of them are as brutal or disturbing as Haggard’s murder, Bal’s beating or the Randals, Gassett and Jackson slayings. From vandalism to verbal intimidation and threats based on a victim’s race, sexual identity or religion, such incidents remind the region that despite its racial, ethnic and cultural diversity, irrational hate and prejudice continue to be a stain on society.

Matthew Jendian, chairman of the sociology department at Fresno State, said that while an individual is the victim of a hate crime, the act itself – whether vandalism, intimidation, assault or worse – often has a broader intent.

“You’re dealing with an individual who may feel individually targeted, but they didn’t do anything to warrant that,” Jendian said. “They were attacked not because of who they are individually, but because of others’ feelings for the social category to which they belong.”

“It’s a message not only to the individual, but to the entire group about not being welcome, to be afraid,” he added. “That has a terrorizing component. When you see members of your group being targeted for attack, there’s a growing feeling that you are subject to random violence. You are unsafe, unprotected.”

Many of the hate-motivated crimes that took place in the Valley – nearly 60 percent, in fact – were driven by bias based on race or ethnicity.

Not all of those cases make it into the court system for prosecution as hate crimes. Despite investigators identifying suspects in 145 of the incidents in the four-county region, fewer than 60 percent were apparently referred to local county district attorneys as hate crimes. Fewer still – about 45 percent – are filed in court by prosecutors as hate crimes.

The figures are among a slew of statewide crime data released this month by the state Department of Justice. The state defines hate crimes as “acts (that) involve the intent to cause physical injury, emotional suffering, or property damage where there is a reasonable cause to believe that the crime was motivated by the victim’s race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or physical or mental disability.”

Who are the victims?

More than 240 individual victims, as well as about 20 institutional victims such as businesses, houses of worship or government agencies, were identified in the Valley cases. The largest number, 93, were targets of anti-black or African American bias, and all but six of those were individual victims.

Fewer than two dozen of incidents against blacks were property crimes such as vandalism, burglary or other types of property damage. Of cases deemed violent crimes against people, 23 were assaults. Some type of weapon, from guns and knives to fists and feet, were used by suspects in 37 cases.

Other victims targeted by racially or ethnically motivated hate crimes included 16 Hispanic or Latino victims, 10 white victims, seven Arabic victims, four Asians and three American Indians. Six victims were of multiple races, and 14 more came from other races or ethnic groups.

Sexual orientation or sexual identity was another major motivating factor for hate crimes in the Valley, according to the state data. Thirty-two gay men were targets across the region, and another 16 victims were lesbian women. Other victims included three people who identified as bisexual, while eight victims were transgender individuals. Another 22 victims were targeted by bias against the broader LGBT community.

Since 2010, four homicide cases were deemed hate crimes by investigators: a 2010 incident in Visalia motivated by religious bias; a 2015 case in Kings County in which a gay man was killed; and two cases in Fresno – Haggard’s death in 2015 and last year’s triple-homicide allegedly by a 39-year old black suspect who told police that he wanted to kill white people.

California in comparison

Of the 55 California counties for which hate crime data was reported, the Valley counties – Fresno, Kings, Madera and Tulare – each had lower rates of hate crimes than most. In Madera County, where two police departments and the sheriff’s department combined to report only six incidents to the state – and none since 2010 – the rate of bias-driven crime was fewer than four per 100,000 people, the lowest in the state. Tulare County was among only eight counties with rates of fewer than 10 hate crimes per 100,000 people.

Kings County, where 17 reported crimes since 2007 translated to a rate of about 11 hate crimes per 100,000, was 11th lowest in the state, while Fresno’s 151 hate crimes gave it a rate of about 15 crimes per 100,000 – lower than 38 other counties.

Individual police agencies are tasked by the state with determining whether or not a crime is actually a hate crime. The state Department of Justice asks each agency to use a two-tier review – first by the initial officer who responds to an incident. “At the second level, each report is reviewed by at least one other officer to confirm that the event, was, in fact, a hate crime,” according to the Justice Department.

As a result, there is imprecision in the process. The Department of Justice warns against making direct comparisons between local agencies because of differences in a city’s or county’s diversity, population density, the size of a police agency, and training received by officers in each city or county.

Additionally, other factors can affect the number of hate crimes reported to the state in each county or community, from the likelihood of people of certain cultures call police to report incidents, to the investigative emphasis and policies of different law enforcement agencies.

In Fresno County, there were substantial swings up and down in the numbers of hate crimes reported by police agencies in the first half of the decade. But after wobbling between 19 bias-driven incidents in 2007 and nine in 2011, the number of hate crimes has risen almost every year since: 13 in 2012, 14 in 2014 and 2015, 18 in 2016 and 19 last year.

Syrian refugees are among those who have been victims of growing prejudice – sometimes rising to the level of hate crimes – in recent years in Fresno, said Zachary D. Darrah, executive director or Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries. “We know for sure that some of the Syrians, who of course are Muslims, have experienced some form of this,” he said. About a year and a half ago, when Syrian refugees began arriving in Fresno, some had their cars vandalized with anti-Islamic rhetoric, Darrah added.

How many victims stay silent?

Some experts and advocates said there’s another reason why Fresno – the fifth-largest city in the state – ranks 15th behind not only bigger cities like Los Angeles, San Jose and San Francisco, but also behind smaller cities like Riverside, Santa Cruz and Redding. They suspect that many victims don’t bother reporting crimes to police.

Shawn Riggins, an African American man who is director of the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission’s Local Conservation Corps, said he isn’t surprised that blacks were disproportionately targeted by hate crimes in the Valley over the past decade. He said he believes the hate-crime figures, particularly for African Americans and Latinos, are underreported and don’t reflect reality.

“I think it just happens so much that it has almost become commonplace where we might not even perceive it as a hate crime,” Riggins said of crimes involving African American victims. “It’s something that we deal with on a daily basis and we just become acclimated to it.”

“There is a likelihood that some people are less likely to report,” said Jendian, the sociology professor. “These people tend to be groups that are the most victimized; they’re the ones who feel that the criminal justice system is not working for them, but against them.”

“When people experience what they feel is a routine disregard for their concerns or their community, there tends to be less reliance upon that system for addressing their problems,” Jendian added.

Venancio Gaona, a longtime advocate for Latino rights, also said that the number of reported crimes is likely low. “The ones who are targeted the most are those who are undocumented and new immigrants,” he said. There is a feeling that local public and elected officials have signaled their own discontent toward the Latino community over the years, “so people don’t even bother reporting these types of crimes.”

Among the Sikh community, “I think sometimes people don’t decide to report these crimes because sometimes they don’t even have a word for it,” said Naindeep Singh, executive director of the Fresno branch of the Jakara Movement. “Sometimes they get embarrassed. They don’t want to be in the media.”

Jason Scott, executive director for the LGBT Community Network/LGBT Fresno, said fear of social stigma may be a factor for members of the LGBT community who are victims of hate crimes. “Sadly, looking the other way, fear of being ‘outed,” and worry that justice will not be served means the actual rate (is) much higher,” he said. “It is common for those who are injured to share photos and stories with their friends and just ‘get over it.’”

Scott said that his organization strongly urges hate-crime victims to report incidents to authorities – if for no other reason than to hold law enforcement accountable.

Bringing hatred to justice

While police may take a report of an incident as a hate crime, prosecutors are faced with meeting a much tougher standard of evidence in a criminal trial to convince a jury that an offense was indeed motivated by hate, bias or prejudice.

“Probable cause is the standard for police to make an arrest. We have to prove beyond reasonable doubt when we go to a jury,” said Donovan, a senior deputy district attorney in the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office. “If in fact we can prove that a hate crime has been committed, we’re going to file those charges and we’re going to prove that.”

Donovan was the prosecutor in the assault and vehicle run-down of Amrik Singh Bal in 2015. Two suspects were arrested – one of whom committed suicide after he made bail but before he went to trial. The remaining suspect was convicted and sentenced in December 2016 to four years in prison. Evidence and testimony in court showed that the two were driving in the neighborhood, saw Bal dressed in traditional Sikh garb with a long beard and turban, and mistook him for a Muslim. “They shouted, ‘ISIS, terrorist, let’s get him,’” Donovan said. “There was no doubt in our minds to file that charge as a hate-crime enhancement.”

Hate crimes pose a unique problem for prosecutors. For most crimes, the presence or absence of a motive is something that a jury may consider in a trial. For a hate crime, however, “motive is an absolute factor,” Donovan said. “We have to prove it as an element of the crime. It makes it difficult.”

That difficulty is reflected in the figures from the state justice department. Of 30 cases filed by Fresno County prosecutors against defendants as hate crimes from 2007 through 2017, only 12 ended up in convictions.

Part of the challenge is the freedom of expression and speech in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. “It’s a matter of content of one’s speech versus their conduct,” Donovan explained. “Calling someone names or using a racial or cultural epithet is not necessarily a hate crime. … People have a right to hate, but they don’t have a right to act upon that hate” in violation of someone else’s rights.”

Additionally, “not only do we have to show motive, but there may be multiple motives for a person to do what they did. For a hate crime, we have to show that (their prejudice) was a substantial motive,” the prosecutor added.

Donovan said he typically files hate-crime allegations as enhancements to other charges rather than as a primary offense, “because I still have the underlying criminal charges.” For instance, the attack against Bal was filed as an assault with a hate-crime enhancement. That’s why an incident may be reflected in the crimes reported by law enforcement to the state Department of Justice, but not necessarily in the prosecution survey.

Acceptance of intolerance?

Jendian, the sociology professor, said he believes that the tenor of public discourse in recent years is leading to an environment in which intolerance of people who are different is more acceptable “when political leaders express intolerance in public ways.”

“When comments are directed toward groups and set a tone, especially by a person in a leadership position, then that communicates to other people that these groups are unacceptable, that they are not adding anything of benefit to society, that they are a threat,” Jendian said. “And the people who go after them are typically acting out of defensiveness about feeling a threat. When people feel threatened or fearful, they tend to attack.”

From a sociological perspective, Jendian said hate crimes represent an extreme manifestation of prejudices and biases that many people already hold, either consciously or unconsciously. “Most of us possess certain racial attitudes that we would otherwise not like to have.”

Jendian cited President Donald Trump’s sometimes inflammatory remarks about immigrants and minorities, both as a candidate and as president, as a factor that is bringing such unconscious bias to the surface. “Trump’s public rhetoric around difference has increased some individuals’ comfort levels in expressing their own intolerance in public ways,” Jendian said. “More people are emboldened to act on their own biases and prejudices.”

Darrah, the refugee ministry director, said he’s received threatening emails from across the country – including one threatening his life – because of his work with Syrian refugees.

“Obviously there’s people out there that don’t like the fact that these communities are here and (that) an organization like FIRM is serving them, but we are glad to do this. That’s why we exist as an organization,” Darrah said. “It’s important to know that hate crimes are not indicative or defining actions of an entire community, (but) unfortunately, they reflect subsets of the community that do exist.”

Tim Sheehan: 559-441-6319; Twitter: @TimSheehanNews. Yesenia Amaro: 559-441-6144; Twitter: @YeseniaAmaro.