A newly formed team consisting of two investigators and three prosecutors from the district attorney will work to put people accused of hate crimes behind bars in Orange County.
Hate crime has increased in Orange County in recent years.
“In 2014 we had 40 hate crimes and 14 hate incidents, and by 2019 we had 83 hate crimes and 156 heat incidents,” said Allison Edwards, CEO of Orange County Human Relations Council. She added that 2019 will be the last year the data was available.
Dealing with hate
This story is part of an ongoing series that examines specific steps Orange County’s leaders can take to crack down on racial justice and hatred across the region.
Between 1993 and 2008, Orange County prosecutors prosecuted nine hate crime cases.
According to DA spokeswoman Kimberly Edds, they have prosecuted over 20 hate crimes since 2019.
Earlier this week, the district prosecutor’s office announced the establishment of a hate crime department, overseen by the chief of the special prosecutor’s office, to try to fix the surge.
“Hate will not be tolerated here,” District Attorney Todd Spitzer said in a statement.
Spitzer tries to fight hate crimes during a sexual harassment scandal.
He did not return requests for comments on the new unit.
What is a hate crime?
In California, a hate crime is a criminal offense committed in whole or in part based on one or more of the following actual or perceived characteristics of the victim: disability, gender, nationality, race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or association with a person or group of people one of these characteristics. Examples include: Assault, threat of violence or attempted murder; racist or hateful graffiti or vandalism of private property.
Edds said the unit will work to train local law enforcement agencies to investigate hate crimes and reach out to communities to report these crimes.
“There are certain elements that we need to prove that we may not be able to move a case forward if we don’t get all of the information we need,” Edds said.
Edds added that the office is using existing resources and staff to set up the unit, adding that the prosecutors and investigators come from different cultural backgrounds.
It will not be easy.
Many people are reluctant to report hate crimes because of a lack of confidence in law enforcement agencies. Some also face language barriers when reporting hate crimes.
“More than 50% of Americans in Orange County speak a different language at home,” said Mary Anne Foo, founder and executive director of the Orange County’s Community Alliance and Asian Islanders.
“Even if you speak English, you will be more comfortable reporting what happened in the language, but even if you do not speak English, you will not report it.”
Foo added that some people don’t report because they are scared or feel criminalized.
Hate crimes against Asian Americans in the county increased ten-fold between 2019 and 2020, according to Edwards, who believes the number will be even greater once the data collection is complete.
And for some time now, Orange County has had regular rallies, vigils and press conferences calling for an end to violence and hatred against the community.
From left: Leo Wu (9), Zhihai Li and Alan Wu (6) take part in the “We are Irvine” campaign, which denounces recent hate crimes against Asians. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, voice of OC
The Asian-American and Pacific islander community has faced a wave of violence and hate crime since the pandemic began in the United States.
According to the Stop AAPI Hate Reporting Center launched in 2020, over 6,600 cases of violence and hate were reported nationwide between March 19, 2020 and March 31, 2021.
In 16 cities across the country, reported hate crimes against Asian Americans increased 164% from the first three months of 2020 to the first three months of 2021, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
The announcement of the new hate crime department follows that surge.
Foo believes the unit will be effective as more people accused of hate crimes are arrested and prosecuted.
“I think then people will say, wow, it’s taken really seriously and if I do something I’ll be fully prosecuted,” she said.
The state’s new attorney general, Rob Bonta, announced an increased focus on hate crimes across the state with the establishment of the Racial Justice Bureau at the state’s Department of Justice.
The state’s Asia Pacific Islanders Legislative Caucus is pushing for bills declaring racism a public health crisis, increasing fines for hate crimes, setting up a toll-free line and forms for reporting hate crimes, and funding community organizations that provide human mental health services offer that have been targeted by hatred.
In Orange County, the Latino community makes up 34% of the population, the Asian community about 22%, and the black community about 2%, according to the US Census Bureau.
Despite their small population, blacks were the hardest hit in both hate crimes and incidents in the county in 2019.
“Historically, that was the case. It doesn’t apply to every single year since we started tracking it, but it does apply to most years, ”said Edwards.
It’s hard for Edwards to say whether the District Attorney’s department will be effective in reducing hate crimes, but it’s an important step.
“I appreciate whenever our leaders want to pay attention to how racism affects our communities. But I think it has to be one of many tools, and that work, like prevention, has to be part of that work spectrum, ”she said.
Edwards explained that some hate crime prevention opportunities could create opportunities for different communities to interact at school and even teach different stories.
Some cities, including the county board of directors, have issued resolutions condemning hatred while hate crimes against Asian Americans increased.
Aliso Viejo officials will consider a resolution reiterating that the city will denounce hate and hate crimes at their meeting next Wednesday.
Others are looking for ways to simplify the reporting of hate crimes through multilingual online portals on city and police websites.
City residents, parishioners and workers gathered on March 19 to address the recent surge in hate crimes in Asia. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, voice of OC
Irvine – the third highest Asian population per capita in the country according to Index Mundi – was one of the first cities to do so when they announced their portal in March.
The Seal Beach Police Department is also planning to set up a multilingual online portal for reporting. The city passed a resolution against hate after a resident of Asia received a threatening letter telling the community to law enforcement officials fight hate crimes.
Garden Grove has set up a multilingual hotline to report non-emergency hate crimes and incidents.
Last month, Huntington Beach city officials directed the city’s Human Relations Task Force and the city police department to post data about hate crimes online, interact with community members, and find ways the city could respond to such crimes.
Some people have urged the county regulator to increase the OC Human Relations Commission’s funding to provide cross-language services for their hate crime reporting system.
According to Foo, an understanding of the need for in-language services is emerging.
“If other cities, school districts, or the county can really have resources in the language, more community members will not only be able to report, but they will also have access to resources that they couldn’t access before.”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.