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A newly minted team made up of two investigators and three prosecutors from the district attorney’s office will be working to put people accused of hate crimes behind bars in Orange County.

Hate crimes have been spiking 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 hate incidents,” said Allison Edwards, CEO of the Orange County Human Relations Council. She added that 2019 is the last year the data was available.

Handling Hate

This story is part of an ongoing series exploring concrete steps Orange County leaders can take to tackle racial justice and hate across the region, amid a recent spike in hate incidents across the county and U.S. during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Between 1993-2018, the Orange County District Attorney’s office prosecuted 9 hate crime cases. 

Since 2019, they’ve prosecuted over 20 hate crimes, according to DA spokeswoman Kimberly Edds.

Earlier this week the district’s attorney’s office announced the creation of a hate crimes unit that will be supervised by the head of their special prosecutions office to address the spike.

“Hate will not be tolerated here,” said District Attorney Todd Spitzer in a statement.

Spitzer is looking to crackdown on hate crimes while in the midst of a sexual harassment scandal

He did not return requests for comment on the new unit.

What is a Hate Crime?

In California, a hate crime is a criminal act committed either entirely or partly due to 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 persons with any 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 be working to train local law enforcement on investigating hate crimes and outreach efforts to communities to get them to report these crimes.

“There’s certain elements that we have to prove that if we don’t get all the information that we need, we might not be able to move forward on a case,” Edds said.

Edds added that the office is using existing resources and employees to create the unit, adding that the prosecutors and investigators come from diverse cultural backgrounds.

It’s not going to be easy. 

Many people are reluctant to report hate crimes due to a mistrust of law enforcement. Some also face language barriers when they come to reporting hate crimes.

“More than 50% of Orange County, Asian Americans speak another language at home,” said Mary Anne Foo, Founder and Executive Director of the Orange County Asian and Pacific Islander Community Alliance.

“Even if you speak English, you’re going to feel more comfortable reporting what’s happened in-language, but also if you don’t speak English, you’re not going to report it.”

Foo added that some people don’t report because they’re scared or feel criminalized.

Hate crimes against Asian Americans in the county have increased tenfold between 2019 and 2020, according to Edwards who believes the number will be even larger once they finish collecting the data.

And for a while, rallies, vigils and news conferences calling for the end of the violence and hatred geared toward the community have been a regular occurrence in Orange County.

From left: Leo Wu, 9, Zhihai Li, and Alan Wu, 6 attend the “We are Irvine” campaign denouncing recent hate crimes towards Asians. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The Asian American and Pacific Islander community have been confronted with a surge of violence and hate crimes across the U.S. since the start of the pandemic.

Over 6,600 incidents of violence and hate nationally were reported between March 19, 2020 to March 31, 2021, according to the Stop AAPI Hate reporting center — which launched in 2020.

In 16 cities across the country, reported hate crimes against Asian Americans have gone up by 164% when comparing 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 crimes unit comes following that increase. 

Foo believes the unit will be effective as people see more people accused of hate crimes being arrested and prosecuted.

 “I think then people will say ‘wow it’s being taken really seriously and if I do something I’m going to get (prosecuted) to the fullest extent,’” she said.

The state’s new Attorney General Rob Bonta also announced earlier this week a greater focus on hate crimes across the state with the creation of the Racial Justice Bureau in the state’s department of justice.

The state’s Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus are pushing bills that declare racism a public health crisis, increase criminal fines for hate crimes, create a toll free hotline and forms for reporting hate crimes — as well as fund community organizations that provide mental health services for people who have been targeted by hate.

In Orange County, the Latino community makes up 34% residents, the Asian community makes up about 22%  and Black community makes up around 2%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Despite their small population, Black people were targeted the most in both hate crimes and hate incidents in the county in 2019.

“Historically, that’s been the case. It’s not true for every single year since we’ve started tracking this but it’s true for the majority of the years,” Edwards said. 

For Edwards, it is hard to say if the district attorney’s unit will be effective in bringing the number of hate crimes down, but said it’s an important step.

“I appreciate anytime our leaders are looking to pay attention to the way that racism affects our communities. But I think it’s got to be one of many tools and that work, like prevention, has to also be part of that spectrum of work,” she said.

Edwards explained some ways to prevent hate crimes could be creating opportunities for diverse communities to interact and even teach diverse histories in school.

Some cities put out resolutions condemning the hate, including the county’s Board of Supervisors, during the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans.

Aliso Viejo officials will consider a resolution reaffirming the city denounces hate and hate crimes at their meeting next wednesday.

Others are looking for ways to make it easier to report hate crimes through multi-language online portals on city and police websites.

Residents, community members and city staff gathered on March 19 to address the recent uptick in Asian hate crimes. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Irvine — who has 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 looking at creating an online multi-language portal for reporting. The city passed a resolution against hate after an Asian American resident received a threatening letter and community calls on law enforcement to address hate crimes.

Garden Grove launched a multi-language hotline to report non-emergency hate crimes and incidents. 

Last month, Huntington Beach city officials directed the city’s Human Relations Task force and police department to publish data on hate crimes online, as well as engage with community members and come up with ways for the city to respond to such crimes.

Some people have called on the county’s Board of Supervisors to increase the OC Human Relations Commission’s funding to create in-language services for their hate crime reporting system

Foo said an understanding for the need for in-language services is emerging.

“If other cities, the school districts, the county can really have resources in-language, you’ll see more community members not only reporting, but being able to access resources that they wouldn’t have been able to access before.”

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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