Hitting the Wall

Why it seems like hate crimes are on the rise, and why it's so difficult to catch the perpetrators

click to enlarge Raymond Reyes, chief diversity officer at Gonzaga
Raymond Reyes, chief diversity officer at Gonzaga

There is no video evidence, or DNA. There are no fingerprints or physical evidence left behind. And there are no known witnesses who saw the person or people who scrawled "N---er" in bright red paint on the side of the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center.

The word, visible from a children's playground, is one so steeped in racial hatred that dozens of community members and leaders gathered on Nov. 15, exactly one week after the election, to take turns painting over it.

Spokane police are investigating the incident as a felony under the state's hate crime statute. A police captain, a detective and patrol officers went door to door looking for witnesses when the graffiti was first reported. They even checked dumpsters and trash cans for a spray-paint can, hoping to find fingerprints, SPD Lt. Dave McCabe says, with no success. Left with few other options, SPD is now offering a cash reward for anonymous tips that lead to an arrest.

But without any new information, it looks like the investigation has hit a wall, drawing frustration and outrage from law enforcement, elected officials and the community.

"Generally on these cases, it can be very difficult without [witnesses or crime scene evidence]," says SPD Capt. Dave Singley, who oversees investigations. "But there are other ways to obtain evidence, such as information from folks who call and leave a tip."

As similar incidents locally and nationally have flashed into the public's view in the past month, community members and police look for answers: Are hate crimes actually on the rise after the election? And how do you solve a crime for which there is no evidence?

Throughout the divisive presidential campaign and in the time since, President-elect Donald Trump espoused policies that would prevent Muslims from entering the country, promised to deport millions of undocumented immigrants and assembled a team that included advisers who'd been accused of making racist statements.

While Spokane police received at least two reports of hate crimes within the past month, the Southern Poverty Law Center tallied 867 incidents nationwide between Nov. 9 and 18. SPLC researchers used tips to the their website and news reports to come up with the final number, and though they eliminated a few apparent hoaxes, not every incident could be confirmed.

According to the SPLC report, the majority of these incidents are anti-immigrant and almost 40 percent happened in school settings.

"I've worked here for 29 years, and have seen a lot of stuff come and go, especially in the '80s and '90s, when Richard Butler and his group were instigating hate," says Raymond Reyes, Associate Academic Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer at Gonzaga University. "But with what has happened for the week after the election, some of our international students and students of different social identities are obviously shaken and afraid."

The first Saturday after Trump was elected, for example, a family in the Logan Neighborhood photographed graffiti painted on the side of their home that read: "Can't Stump the Trump Mexicans," accompanied by a swastika.

Two days after the election, John Kraus, a student at Washington State University in Pullman, reported that homophobic slurs — "Faggot!" "Die Fag" — had been smeared in red paint on his car.

"To all this is what Donald Trumps America looks like," Kraus wrote on Facebook. "I have no fear in the face of hate! And to the coward who did this, history will not remember you kindly."

By the end of November, the post had been shared more than 8,000 times.

Police in Pullman are investigating the incident as a hate crime; however, Spokane police were unable to say whether the graffiti in the Logan Neighborhood qualified as such by press time.

Other reports of hateful acts have circulated on social media and by word of mouth, but have not necessarily been reported to police. Together, these official and unofficial reports represent the problems with solving hate crimes.

A discrepancy in FBI statistics for hate crimes in 2013 and a U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics report from the same year indicate that a vast majority of hate crimes are not reported to police. Local and state law enforcement agencies told the FBI that 5,928 incidents were reported, while the BJS report estimates that number is nearly 260,000.

In the weeks following the apparent hate crimes in Spokane, police encouraged the public to report every incident.

"This information is vitally important for us to determine trends of what's going on and who is responsible," SPD Asst. Chief Justin Lundgren says. "Reporting is the only way that we're going to get to the bottom of anything going on in the community. You are our eyes and ears."

For hate crimes that are reported to police, there is often little evidence. About one-third of hate crimes reported to police in 2015 are crimes against property, with potentially little or no contact between an offender and a victim, according to the FBI.

Then, holding a person responsible for an alleged hate crime is difficult. According to data on federal hate crime convictions, prosecutors declined to pursue charges in 235 out of 270 cases, or 87 percent of the time.

Notably, Idaho has sent 14 cases to the federal courts since 2010, the second most of any district. Only two were prosecuted, and neither resulted in convictions. The Eastern District of Washington referred three cases; none were prosecuted.

It's impossible to know for sure whether hate crimes have actually spiked since Trump was elected, or if the spike is the result of more people reporting these incidents. However, the 5,850 hate crimes reported to the FBI in 2015 represents a 6 percent increase from the previous year.

"There's a sense that there's an increase," says James Mohr, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs at Washington State University in Spokane. "Yet we have to realize that these things were happening in our community even before the election."

Last week, scores of people, including local and state-level elected officials, showed up for a press conference held by the Spokane County Human Rights Task Force.

Dean Lynch, the group's president, announced several new efforts to address the hateful acts, including a new tracking mechanism similar to the one set up in Kootenai County.

Gonzaga University's Institute for Hate Studies is also hosting a conference on Dec. 3. The evening will feature group discussions directed toward fostering a better understanding of others.

"It's about trying to interrupt the intergenerational attitudes that result in acts of hate," says Reyes, who helped establish the Institute for Hate Studies. "It's trying to educate people and practicing emotional intelligence and cultural competence to challenge assumptions about what people know about others." ♦

The "Good Neighbor Conference: Addressing Hate Through Advocacy and Action," hosted by Gonzaga University, the Spokane Interfaith Council, Spokane Faith & Values and the Spokane County Human Rights Task Force, takes place Dec. 3 from 6-9 pm at GU's Jepson Center.