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News / Northwest

Washington has no hate crime hotline, but the idea is gaining traction

The Columbian
Published: March 18, 2023, 6:02am

When someone broke into a Sikh cultural center in Federal Way, smashed up the prayer hall and stole equipment, wreaking havoc that many community members believed must have been at least partly motivated by prejudice, the incident made headlines and drew denunciations from politicians.

But other episodes in which Sikh community members are victimized get less attention, like when students are bullied at school or taxi drivers are harassed by passengers just because they wear turbans, said Jasmit Singh, a board member at the Khalsa Gurmat Center who, along with a number of other religious and civic leaders, is advocating for Washington to create a nonpolice hotline for victims of hate crimes and bias incidents.

“These incidents are very underreported,” and to address hate in society, “We have to be able to understand the magnitude of the problem,” Singh said.

Even in the case of the Khalsa Gurmat Center incident in 2021, the police and FBI ultimately declined to label it a hate crime, citing a lack of overt evidence of bias. They have yet to make an arrest.

“The feeling of violation” lingers long after such incidents, and having to explain them to Sikh children “leaves the community disheartened,” Singh said.

Senate Bill 5427, which would have established the hate and bias hotline, plus a program to compensate victims, didn’t advance from the Senate’s budget committee last month, so it won’t be adopted during the 2023 session. But advocates plan to try again next year and say momentum is building behind the proposal, which is modeled on programs already operating in Oregon.

Sen. Javier Valdez, D-Seattle, the prime sponsor of SB 5427, called the Khalsa Gurmat Center case “a perfect example” of an incident that could yield a call to the hotline, among a variety of other cases and circumstances.

The proposal

Senate Bill 5427 would have created a hotline within the state Attorney General’s Office and a compensation program able to grant qualifying victims up to $2,000, subject to the availability of funds reserved for that purpose.

Hate crimes, established as a category by Washington lawmakers in 2019, are when a perpetrator maliciously and intentionally causes physical injury or damage because of a victim’s race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression or identity, or disability. They also include incidents where hate-related threats against a specific person or group cause the victim to reasonably fear they could be harmed.

Bias incidents, on the other hand, are noncriminal acts, defined by SB 5427 as hostile expressions of animus toward another person that relate to the person’s actual or perceived membership in a protected class.

The hotline would take reports from victims during business hours, “provide crisis intervention, information and referrals” to local service providers, advocate for victims with police and collect data. The compensation program would include a process to evaluate claims. The hotline and compensation program could cost as much $2 million annually, mostly to pay nine staffers and contracted call takers, according to a fiscal note.

The King County Council approved a separate proposal last September to create a hate-crimes hotline, allocating $150,000 to the effort.

SB 5427 was backed by the ADL, Latino Civic Alliance, Urban League, Organization of Chinese Americans, Council on American-Islamic Relations, Jewish Community Relations Council and Washington State Labor Council.

The bill had significant support in the Legislature, where it advanced from the Senate’s law and justice committee, Valdez said. The cost was a hang-up, however, with Democratic budget leaders this session deciding to prioritize dollars for existing programs rather than new programs, he said.

Right response?

There’s an urgent need to address hate and bias, said Stephen Paolini, associate regional director for the Pacific Northwest office of the Anti-Defamation League. Law enforcement agencies in Washington, Paolini noted, reported 576 hate crimes in 2021, the most since at least 2000, according to the FBI’s most recent data. That number, which didn’t include noncriminal bias incidents, was likely an undercount, because many hate crimes go unreported by victims or uncategorized by police, he suggested.

The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs didn’t oppose SB 5427 outright but warned lawmakers to exercise caution, suggesting a nonpolice option could confuse victims and reduce calls to police. The association declined an interview request for this story.

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“We’re concerned this bill may blur those lines about who can show up” and provide access to criminal justice, Taylor Gardner, deputy policy director at WASPC, said during a public hearing in the Senate.

Proponents of the bill pushed back on those points. Some people, especially victims from marginalized communities, don’t feel comfortable calling police, Valdez noted. Whereas police concentrate on arresting perpetrators, a nonpolice hotline could provide specialized care to victims, regardless of an arrest, Paolini added. In many cases, like those involving messages written under the cover of night, perpetrators are never caught, he said.

Washington has an existing program that can reimburse victims of various crimes with physical injuries and psychological trauma for medical bills and mental health treatment. But that process can take a long time and property damages aren’t covered, Paolini said.

“We need an innovative response,” the ADL representative said. “Right now in Washington, we have no data on bias incidents at all.”

Julie Barrett, founder of Conservative Ladies of Washington, testified against SB 5427, arguing the definition of bias incidents and the compensation program would create a “wide open” opportunity for people to “cash in,” based on actions or words that might not actually constitute crimes. The bill could set up a “tattletale hotline” that would likely be abused, Barrett said.

The Attorney General’s Office would establish criteria to guard against abuse, proponents counter, pointing to Oregon’s experience.

Oregon’s experience

Oregon’s hotline initially launched in 2020 as a two-person effort with an annual budget of only $43,000. The program received more than 1,100 reports in its inaugural year, however, persuading lawmakers to add staffers, boost the budget to $2 million and create a compensation fund.

The hotline has received more than 5,000 reports to date, with about 30 percent determined to be hate crimes, about 60 percent as bias incidents and the rest neither of those. Many are about personal attacks, but some are about institutional bias, said Johanna Costa, the program’s bias response coordinator.

Though Oregon’s program provides referrals to local providers, advocacy with police and crisis assistance, sometimes victims just need an open ear.

“So many people never disclose, because the intent of a bias incident or hate crime is to humiliate and degrade,” Costa said. “One of the most powerful things the hotline does is validate” the idea that something wrong has occurred, especially because the validation “is coming from the government.”

There were concerns that Oregon’s fund might run out, with only $100,000 earmarked for two years. That hasn’t happened, Costa said. The awards are capped at $2,000; most victims don’t seek money and some get denied.

“We’re not writing checks with a loose pen,” Costa said.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression opposed SB 5427, mostly because the bill would have required the hotline to refer bias incident reports to law enforcement, said Joe Cohn, the organization’s policy director.

Telling people to report bias incidents, which can involve constitutionally protected speech about issues like gender politics and race relations, and then having a government program refer such cases to police, would carry “tremendous potential to chill that speech,” Cohn said, noting the bill would have allowed complainants to remain anonymous.

There was a plan before SB 5427 died to remove the police referral requirement from the bill, Valdez said. Though Oregon’s hotline can advocate with police, it doesn’t refer cases directly to law enforcement because the program is “victim-centered,” rather than perpetrator-centered, Costa said.

Local views

The ADL decided to push SB 5427 partly because Washington residents should have the same options that Oregon residents do, Paolini said, citing incidents at places like Black Coffee Northwest.

“We have to do things to make everyone feel safe and make everyone aware of the issues that are plaguing our communities,” said Black business owner Erwin Weary of the cafe in Shoreline.

Weary, who started the business with his wife, Darnesha, in 2020, to serve as a welcoming space for Black people and all people, said the cafe has been vandalized with swastikas, garbage and broken windows and has been targeted with racist, threatening messages.

Recovering can cost money and mental energy, so a hotline and fund could help, he said, describing such incidents as particularly upsetting because the cafe hosts cultural events and a youth group in the same building.

A Washington hotline could receive calls about a range of incidents. Some incidents clearly involve prejudice, like when slurs are used on their own or in conjunction with a crime, while others are more ambiguous.

At the Khalsa Gurmat Center, the Sikh school and place of worship, detectives and the FBI “found no overt evidence to support this particular crime was motivated by bias,” though it’s “understandable” that community members might “feel that way,” Kurt Schwan, a Federal Way Police Department spokesperson, said in an email, noting there were no spray-paint insignia or messages. “The suspect stole property and the vandalism seemed to be in service to the theft. Investigators are inclined to think of this as a burglary.”

Singh said that didn’t make complete sense to many community members, scores of whom gathered at the center on a recent Sunday to sing, pray, share a meal and (for some children) make Punjabi letters out of Play-Doh.

The center is in an out-of-the-way location and the intruder took time to enter the prayer hall and destroy an ornate, handmade canopy and pedestal that usually contains sacred scriptures (those were not in the building at the time), plus windows, fire-system control panels, sound equipment and musical instruments, Singh said. The person stole some computers and TVs but could have stolen other items, had that been the entire point, he said.

“Why would somebody go to all that length to destroy things?” he asked.

Costa said the case would “absolutely” be an appropriate call for the Oregon hotline and would be identified as a bias crime (like a hate crime in Washington). The program can take into account how a victim perceives the motivations in an incident and prior trauma, she said. The region’s Sikh residents have been through a lot, Singh said, mentioning a 2017 shooting in Kent in which the Sikh victim was allegedly told, “Go back to your own country.”

Valdez said the Khalsa Gurmat Center case could have been recorded by a Washington hotline as a bias incident, at least.

“Stories like these deserve to be told and should inform how we address hate in our communities,” he said, describing the case as “a targeted attack on the culture and religion” of the center. “We need a way to report and discuss these incidents and the victims deserve appropriate crisis intervention.”

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