Despite a number of recent high-profile cases, hate-motivated attacks in San Francisco appear to be on the decline in recent years, police and FBI statistics show.
Between 2004 and 2010, yearly hate-crime incidents in The City dropped from 149 to 45, according to the Police Department. FBI statistics for The City show a similar decline.
At a news conference in March, District Attorney George Gascón, citing a brutal assault on two Mexican nationals in the Tenderloin in November, allegedly by a group of white males yelling “white power,” said hate crimes were on the rise in San Francisco.
“That kind of surprised me,” said Terence Hallinan, a defense attorney and former district attorney of San Francisco.
“It seems to me that it’s not going up,” Hallinan said of the hate-crime rate. As an example, he said, “People are so much more accepting of gay people now, and that was one big source of hate crimes, of course.”
However, police and prosecutors caution the statistics don’t tell the whole story.
In a recent interview, Gascón said there is “good reason to believe there is a significant amount of underreporting” of hate crimes, especially in immigrant communities where some fear deportation if they contact police. Gascón has stressed that victims or witnesses of crime, regardless of immigration status, will not be subject to deportation if they report a crime.
Assistant District Attorney Victor Hwang, who heads the office’s hate-crimes unit, said that there has been an increase in white supremacist activity in The City recently, including the Tenderloin case and other attacks last year — allegedly by people affiliated with prison-based neo-Nazi skinhead groups. Those suspects are not believed to be from San Francisco, but are moving to The City for some reason, he said.
“To have individuals connected to some more organized activity, that’s what makes it surprising,” Hwang said. But he also cautioned that there may be older cases involving white supremacists that were simply classified as assaults, or other crimes, and investigators are now reviewing those cases.
While fewer hate crimes in The City are being reported to police, San Francisco prosecutors are more aggressively charging the ones they receive. Former District Attorney Kamala Harris, who was elected state attorney general in November, created a special hate-crimes unit during her tenure, and it has continued to operate under Gascón.
The District Attorney’s Office tried 24 hate-crime cases in 2010, twice the number of cases than the year before. At least one defense attorney, however, worried that San Francisco prosecutors might be overreaching in some instances.
“If hate crimes are going down, they’re casting a wider net, and that really concerns me,” Deputy Public Defender Niki Solis said.
Solis represented two clients acquitted of hate crimes in separate cases last year.
“The law is the law,” she said. “If it’s a hate crime, by all means file it. But if it’s not, you have to look at the whole [picture] and assess it in a way that’s not politically driven, or driven by statistics, but by justice.”
Determining what crimes involve hate is difficult
Distinguishing between a simple assault or property crime and one motivated specifically by hate can be a challenge for police, prosecutors and juries.
A 2009 California Department of Justice report found that of all the hate-crimes prosecutions in California that reached a resolution that year, only 51 percent resulted in convictions.
“It’s a very difficult offense to prove,” said prosecutor Victor Hwang, who heads the hate-crimes unit in the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office. Part of the charging calculus also includes prior acts of violence by the suspect, if the crime is particularly egregious or even if it happens on a holiday associated with a particular group of people, Hwang said.
But someone merely shouting an epithet during an attack, “that’s not a hate crime, it’s an a--hole,” said defense attorney Terence Hallinan, a former district attorney of San Francisco. “You have to prove that’s the reason the assault was committed.”
In recent years, the District Attorney’s Office has had mixed success prosecuting hate crimes.
Hwang recently obtained a guilty plea to a felony hate-crime assault from a bartender earlier this year in connection with a 2009 incident in which he reportedly yelled anti-gay slurs at a customer while ejecting him from the bar. Last year, three Hayward men pleaded guilty to the February 2010 hate-crime
BB-gun shooting of a man in the Mission district whom they believed was gay. Both sentences included community service.
But in November, a jury acquitted Christopher Brymer, a homeless man and former NFL lineman accused of a racially motivated attack against a black man in July. Katherine Dunbar, a young woman accused in a hate-crime graffiti spree, also was acquitted of hate crimes, but convicted of vandalism.
There is a danger in prosecutors being too eager to charge hate crimes, Hallinan said.
“Juries lose confidence in you, and a hate crime doesn’t have the same clarity that it should have,” he said.
But Hwang said hate crimes are important to prosecute.
“Part of the healing for the community is having law enforcement recognize a hate crime for what it is,” Hwang said, adding that it was important that “the victim knows we went to bat for him or her.”
Recent incidents in San Francisco
Monday: An 18-year-old City College of San Francisco student pleads not guilty to charges he used a gay slur during an attack on a fellow student at the school last week. The student is charged with assault with a hate-crime enhancement.
March 17: Three men are arraigned on charges of assault and battery as hate crimes in connection with the Nov. 10 beating of two Mexican nationals outside a Tenderloin bar. According to prosecutors, witnesses heard the attackers shouting “white power” during the beating, which left one of the victims unconscious.
Nov. 1: Christopher Brymer, a homeless man and former NFL lineman accused of two racially motivated attacks against black men in July in the Bayview district, is acquitted of battery, hate crimes and criminal threats. The jury deadlocked on an assault charge.
April 20, 2010: Three Hayward men plead guilty to the hate-crime BB-gun shooting of a San Francisco man in the Mission district Feb. 26, 2010. Police said the men had admitted to targeting several people on that day whom they believed to be gay.
July 21, 2008: A New Jersey man, Eric Hunt, is convicted of false imprisonment and hate crimes for a 2007 incident at the Argent Hotel in which he accosted Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel. Hunt served about 1½ years in jail.