SAN FRANCISCO – Hate crimes are on the rise nationwide, including here in San Francisco, where the city’s diversity also happens to be a hallmark of the San Francisco Police Department’s (SFPD) Hate Crimes Unit.
It’s one of just a handful of such units across the country, and officials say its diversity is a key part of its mission.
“I can speak Spanish, I am half Japanese and I'm gay. So this is what I can give you,” said Sergeant Peter Shields at a recent community forum on hate crimes. Shields has led the hate crimes unit for the SFPD since 2012.
Created in 1990, the unit today has a team of six full-time investigators. “We have people that speak Spanish, Chinese and Korean. We have men and women, gay and straight,” said Shields. “At community meetings all of our paperwork is translated into Arabic, Tagalog, Chinese … We try to be as inclusive as the community is.”
Jeannine Bell is with the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, and has written extensively on hate crimes and law enforcement. “Having detectives of different backgrounds [and] foreign language interpreters … are key elements” in effective policing of hate crimes, said Bell, who spent months embedded with a hate crimes unit in the 90’s.
Reports of hate crimes have spiked across the country, including in major urban areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco, where in 2016 there were 39 hate crimes reported to the police, up from 32 a year earlier, according to data provided by SFPD. Between January and May of this year, there were 18 reported hate crimes in the city.
Gay men continue to be among the most targeted in the city, at 30 percent of all reported attacks, followed by Asian Americans (10 percent), African Americans (8 percent) and Latinos (5 percent).
But despite the uptick in hate crimes, relatively few police departments around the country maintain hate crimes units.
According to the Department of Justice, there were close to 15,400 police departments across the country in 2013, the earliest such data is available. Just 10 percent of those employing 100 officers or more, have personnel assigned full-time to hate crimes units. In departments with less than 100 officers, that number drops to 5 percent.
Bell says the dearth in resources committed to investigating hate crimes is one factor in why fewer than half are ever reported. A recent survey from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that from 2011-2015 more than half of all violent hate crimes nationwide went unreported to police.
“There should be a strong commitment to truly investigating every case,” Bell stressed, noting “if you don't have many boots on the ground,” it can be hard to investigate incidents, reported or otherwise.
Proving a hate crime is an arduous task. Prosecutors must be able to work with victims and witnesses that may be reluctant to come forward. They must also demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that a suspect was motivated by existing prejudices or biases. Finding the evidence falls on investigators like Shields.
“It is extremely difficult,” he acknowledged, noting the process can involve anything from interviews with victims and witnesses, to combing through video footage and even social media posts. “The percentage of cases that are prosecuted or convicted is very low,” he said.
Shields recalls two such cases, one involving a transgender woman who was violently attacked and denied help by onlookers when they saw that she was transgender. The other involved a young boy whose family beat him up and kicked him out of the house because he is gay. Shields said that even with video footage of both attacks courts failed to prosecute them as hate crimes.
“Helping victims is emotionally difficult because they've been attacked for who they are. They can’t or shouldn’t have to change that,” he said, adding, “We try to get therapy for the victims we work with.”
One case that did manage to win a conviction involved an attack outside a gay nightclub in San Francisco’s South of Market district in 2016. Pearly Martin, 30, was sentenced in June of this year to nine years for pulling a knife on five people outside the club.
During trial prosecutors noted she was heard yelling homophobic slurs during the attack, though the public defender alleged that as someone who identifies as bisexual, Martin herself is a member of the LGBT community and that her language was not an indicator of hate.
While the judge dismissed that argument, Shields said it is an example of just how difficult it can be to win a conviction when the defense can use “technicalities to deny that words are racist or full of hatred.”
He also noted that several of the victims were undocumented, a fact left out of a lot of reporting on the case at the time. For Shield’s unit, that meant the added challenge of convincing the victims to come forward. “We helped them to overcome their fears and go to every court date and interview. It took about a year to go to trial.”
Barriers to building trust
SFPD has come under fire in recent years for a series of officer involved shootings where the victims were people of color. Add to this a prevailing political atmosphere that has many communities feeling vulnerable and the result is a widening trust gap with police.
Wilma Gandoy, Consul for Protection and Legal Affairs at the Mexican Consulate in San Francisco, says in this current climate Mexicans and other Latinos – and especially the undocumented – “don’t feel comfortable speaking to authorities.”
But Gandoy notes her office maintains regular contact with the SFPD and says there is a standing agreement between the two to work with victims of hate crimes regardless of their immigration status. She also points out that San Francisco is a sanctuary city, meaning local law enforcement will not share information on undocumented victims with federal immigration officials.
Staff at the Mexican consulate in San Francisco – as well as in San Jose, Sacramento and Fresno – also received training from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) on how to work with victims of hate crimes. Similar trainings were provided to the SFPD.
“While the authorities investigate incidents,” explained Gandoy, “we continue offering services to victims, from therapy to help with documents … buying medicine and food, housing or even payment of funeral services.”
Training officers to recognize hate
ADL trainings involve an intensive 4-hour workshop during which officers learn about the California Penal Code’s statutes on hate crimes, some of the most robust in the country.
According to Nancy Appel, associate director for the ADL’s San Francisco office, a lot of the training focuses on providing “negative examples” of what does not constitute a hate crime.
“We talk about the differences between hate words protected by the First Amendment, hate incidents and hate crimes, bias indicators and hate symbols,” she said. “We teach officers to identify whether there is any extremism element involved in a reported crime.”
For departments with no specialized units, Appel recommends that at least one investigator receive the training, which she says will help departments better “engage in prevention and not just response.”
She notes, “The more officers hear about low-level hate incidents, the better they will be at knowing where to spend resources.”
This story was produced through a partnership with ProPublica's Documenting Hate Project. To report a hate crime, use this form. Reports will be verified before entering a national database that will be made available, with privacy restrictions, to newsrooms and civil rights organizations across the country. The form is not a report to law enforcement or any government agency.