In the wake of last month's hate crime incident where a Latino teenager was stabbed downtown after being called racial slurs, the City of Palo Alto's Human Relations commission held a discussion on local hate crimes with a representative from the Palo Alto Police Department, who provided statistics and information about available resources.
During the commission's special meeting that took place on Wednesday at the Mitchell Park Community Center, police Lt. James Reifschneider presented a statistical report on hate crime incidents in Palo Alto, highlighting the crime's low incidence and stagnant rate over the past decade. However, commissioners and one community member raised concerns regarding the difficulty of reporting hate crimes, particularly for certain minority groups, and put forth suggestions on outreach to make out-of-towners feel safe in the city.
Reifschneider started his presentation by defining "hate crime" as, according to the California Penal Code, "any criminal act that is committed, in whole or in part, based on the perceived or actual status of the person" based on disability, gender, nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or association with persons from one of those delineated groups.
"The act doesn't have to be solely motivated by hate, as long as it is a component," Reifschneider emphasized.
Reifschneider explained that offensive words and racial epithets used "to provoke an immediate violent reaction" are considered fighting words, which -- even if they do not lead to a physical confrontation -- are reported as hate crime. On the other hand, vandalism acts, including a past case where several swastikas were drawn in dust on vehicles in south Palo Alto, are reported as hate crime incidents as opposed to hate crime because there is no concrete, damaging criminal act.
Over the past 10 years, 36 hate crime incidents have taken place in Palo Alto, according to Reifschneider. Twenty-five of them were vandalism, he noted.
Regarding vandalism acts, Reifschneider indicated that the swastika symbol is most commonly used by young vandals who may or may not be aware of the racial implications of the symbol.
"Frequently when we get vandalisms, particularly among juveniles, we'll get a wide variety of symbols which may even be in conflict with one another. So you're left with the idea they probably were not motivated by a particular animus or a particular group because it wouldn't make sense with the symbol right next to them," he said.
"There (are) only seven instances that classify as violent or attempt at violent behavior. And of those, four of them resulted in arrest. So the solubility rate in violent crimes are pretty high for us, and they're already rare," Reifschneider added.
In the previous battery incidents, the suspects were described as predominantly Caucasian and in their 20s and 30s. The victims included one Asian, three African Americans, one Indian and one Latino member of the community, Reifschneider said.
"We never had more than six incidents in any given year in the last 10 years," Reifschneider said, stating that the average per year is two incidents, with a peak in 2008 to six hate crime incidents.
"There is certainly no trending upward; I would say they're about relatively stagnant, if not decreasing over the last few years," he added, saying that there are no certain patterns to be identified among the incidents.
After Reifschneider was done with his presentation, commission chair Jill O'nan invited any public speakers with questions for the lieutenant to come forward. Community member Mary Jane Marcus came up to express some concerns with the tenor of the presentation.
"Maybe I'm misreading your tone, but I guess what I'm hearing is you say they're not getting worse, this isn't that common, ... kind of like downplaying it a little bit, and I want to say this is outrageous," Marcus said.
"I just want to come here as someone from the public to just let the commission and the police department know that there are a lot of people in Palo Alto who are really shocked by this," she added, referring to the hate crime case last month.
Marcus noted that she is concerned about people coming to Palo Alto from other cities, including East Palo Alto, who might not feel welcome and safe downtown. She underlined the important role of the commission, as well as the police department, in making a public statement condemning the hate crime incidents.
"I really want to encourage the commission and us as a community to think about how we send a message that this is really not acceptable and what we can do as a culture to make people feel safe here," Marcus said.
Some of the commissioners agreed with Marcus. Commissioner Theresa Chen pointed out that some minority groups, particularly Chinese Americans in Palo Alto, might have language barriers regarding reporting hate crimes to the police. Chen suggested that the Palo Alto Police Department specifically reach out to the Chinese-American community, letting them know of resources available when faced with a hate crime incident.
O'nan concurred, bringing up the issue of how visible the available resources are.
"A lot of people are confused about when and how and what's appropriate to contact the police (about)," O'nan said. "Not everything is a 911 call, (but) there is a non-emergency number and ... a Facebook page, and a lot of people don't know that."
She added that having webpages and phone lines in Chinese and Spanish would be helpful as well.
Reifschneider responded by saying that, as a department, the police force is trying to encourage hate crime victims to come forward.
"We try to treat every victim that comes forward with as much respect as possible and make sure that we're encouraging them to be forthcoming and ... not being dismissive of what's being reported," he said, adding that there are specific financial and medical resources that are offered to the victims, including the victim-assistance program by the county district attorney's office.
"On the other hand, there is not a whole lot we can do to figure out the cases that aren't being reported to us. I think we're certainly open to suggestions," Reifschneider said.
Commission Vice Chair Greer Stone brought up the point that there is a discrepancy between apprehension about hate crimes and the actual number of occurrences.
"It appears through the reports that it hasn't been a serious issue for the city as far as numbers go, but the fear and perception of being targeted as a minority member ... is more of the issue," Stone said. "The police department itself is doing a lot, but maybe people from other cities or minority members in the city feel that the police department is not doing enough and don't feel that safe while being here."
In responding to the discussion, Reifschneider noted that his intention was to let the community know that there is no upward trend regarding the numbers -- not to downplay the weight of the events that have occurred.
"I certainly don't mean to imply that any individual incident is not significant or outrageous," he said.