The Orange County Register, August 21, 2015
By MEGHANN M. CUNIFF / STAFF WRITER
Reported hate crimes in Orange County decreased in 2014, continuing a 10-year trend of declines.
Despite the news in a report released Thursday by the Orange County Human Relations Commission, the fate of those accused of hate crimes is sometimes murky. Many crimes go unreported. More often than not, those that are reported don’t lead to criminal charges, and the suspects who are charged have a good chance of avoiding conviction.
Orange County’s African American population, which comprises about 2 percent of the county’s 3.1 million people, are victimized by hate crimes more than any other group of people and have been since the commission began compiling data in 1991.
Last year was no exception, according to Thursday’s report. African Americans reported being the target of 11 hate crimes in 2014. That’s the same number as in 2013. Gays and lesbians reported being targeted eight times in 2014, up from seven in 2013, and Jewish people reported six crimes last year and five in 2013. Latino and Asian or Pacific Islanders reported three crimes, as did members of the Muslim, Arab and Middle Eastern communities.
Overall, the number of reported hate crimes dropped – 40 in 2014 and 49 in 2013 – but the report notes that a third of the crimes were violent.
“This indicated a shift in our county. Historically, most local hate crimes were property crimes like vandalism and not acts of violence directed at individuals,” according to the report, which still noted an overall drop in violent hate crimes: 23 last year and 28 in 2013. And the total number of hate crimes continues its 10-year decrease, down by more than half from the 97 reported in 2005.
Still, “too many (people) are being attacked because of the color of their skin, or their religion or their sexual orientation,” said Rusty Kennedy, the commission’s executive director.
But an expert urged caution when assessing the numbers.
“When the numbers are so small, I think it’s hard to say how accurate they are,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal advocacy organization that tracks hate groups. “We know there are lots and lots of hate crimes that don’t make it into the statistics.”
Potok referenced surveys – the commission’s report acknowledges them, too – conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics that have revealed hate crime statistics far greater than the annual numbers compiled by the FBI. And authorities widely believe that many victims of bigotry-driven violence, harassment or property crimes don’t tell law enforcement about their experiences, for a variety of reasons.
“There’s some communities that we’re pretty sure under-report substantially, particularly newer immigrant communities and non-English-speaking communities,” Kennedy said.
But Kennedy said the numbers have been collected the same way for 24 years, and they’ve reflected national spikes in hate crimes such as in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“Correlations like that tells you there are some indicators,” Kennedy said.
CONVICTION RATE LOW
The commission compiles the statistics from information provided by school districts, city police departments, the Sheriff’s Department and groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, the Council on American Islamic Relations and the NAACP of Orange County. It also gets annual reports from the District Attorney’s Office that show how many cases resulted in charges and, of those, how many led to convictions.
Never do the numbers match. Last year, of the 40 reported hate crimes, 12 were referred to the District Attorney’s Office for charges. Prosecutors charged hate crimes in eight of the cases. In 2013, 20 of the 49 reports made it to the District Attorney’s Office, and six were prosecuted as hate crimes. In 2012, it was 61, 16 and eight.
The number of convictions is lower. Prosecutors reported three each in 2014 and 2013, and six in 2012. But those numbers don’t account for every hate crime charged in those years – some still haven’t been resolved. And in some cases, there’s no one to charge: Thursday’s report describes an attack on a Vietnamese American who was getting off a bus to visit her husband at a hospital. A man shouting racial slurs kicked her to the ground but fled and has never been arrested. And sometimes, it’s the commission that pushes the charge: The report refers to a lesbian couple who was assaulted last month, and police classified the crime as a robbery but then reassessed it as a hate crime after the commission intervened.
The conviction numbers also don’t consider the complicated nuances, including plea bargains, that come with seeking justice for a crime that, by its nature, requires a higher standard for prosecution.
“You have to get in the state of mind of the perpetrator to determine what his or her intent was,” said Michael Fell, who ran the District Attorney’s Office hate crime unit during his 18 years there before opening a private practice.
That requirement to prove motivation doesn’t exist with other crimes. But that doesn’t mean the disparity between reports, charges and convictions doesn’t also exist.
“If you look at every category of crimes that we review, you’re not going to find a single category where 100 percent of the cases that were submitted to us were filed,” said Assistant District Attorney Ebrahim Baytieh, who supervises the hate crime unit. “Really, at the end of the day, it’s on a case-by-case basis.”
But Baytieh said one thing is never in dispute: He and his colleagues take hate crimes seriously. They’ve earned longer prison sentences for dozens of violent racists because of it.
And they’re determined that 37-year-old Claude David Wyman will be one of the next.
Authorities say Wyman, a parolee convicted of attempted murder in 1996 who had long ties to white supremacist gangs, saluted Adolf Hitler and hollered racial slurs at an African American man while trying to stab him last year in Costa Mesa.
Costa Mesa police arrested Wyman on Aug. 29 after witnesses at Games Plus, a billiards bar at 518 W. 19th St., told them Wyman yelled racial epithets and did the “Heil Hitler” salute while wielding a knife and threatening to kill an African American man who had stopped to talk to an employee outside smoking.
The case brings with it a key challenge: Authorities don’t know the identity of the victim. He left before police arrived, and he hasn’t responded to fliers and other calls for him to come forward, said Roxi Fyad, District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman. But they have witnesses, and those witnesses have testified in court to support charges of attempted murder, criminal threats and assault with a deadly weapon against Wyman.
Wyman denied attacking the man, who was not injured, according to court documents, and he denied being a current member of a white supremacist gang. But witnesses said he yelled “PENI” – a reference to the notorious Public Enemy Number 1 gang – while lunging at the man, and gang investigators gleaned information from Wyman that indicated he had extensive knowledge of PENI and its operations, according to a transcript from an evidence hearing held before an Orange County Superior Court judge in June.
Wyman pleaded not guilty in July and remains in jail in lieu of $1 million bond. His lawyer, who noted at the evidence hearing that his client was once a member of a primarily Latino gang and has a girlfriend who’s half African American, did not return phone calls seeking comment. Should Wyman be convicted, the hate crime enhancement could add one to four years to his prison sentence, according to state law.
The charges against Wyman also include sentencing enhancements for his alleged gang membership (a prosecutor from the gang unit is handling the case). It’s another hammer prosecutors can use against racists when a hate crime won’t apply, and it carries more time: Those convicted typically can see five to 10 years added to their prison stints. And most often, crimes committed by violent skinheads in Orange County are methamphetamine-fueled crimes against each other, said Jim Mendelson, a senior deputy district attorney who prosecuted white supremacists for eight years.
“They talk the talk. They look the part. They’re swastika-ed up,” Mendelson said. But their crimes aren’t typically fueled by their bigotry, so a hate crime “isn’t a fit.”
“And it doesn’t get us nearly the amount of time that the gang crime enhancements get us,” said Mendelson, who was honored by the Anti-Defamation League in 2012 for his work combating hate crimes.
Kennedy said the 40 hate crimes reported in Orange County last year aren’t all believed to be the work of extremists, but “they’re people that have serious issues of hate and bigotry that are taking the time to act out in these ways.”
“If we don’t report on it every single year, we run this risk of ignoring it and not making a difference,” Kennedy said.