With eight reported hate crimes overall in Palo Alto so far this year, two of them violent, Palo Alto police are stepping up their public reporting of these incidents, Capt. James Reifschneider said during a city-sponsored community forum on Wednesday night.
The 90-minute meeting, which was held over Zoom, included presentations by Reifschneider, Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Erin West, Assistant Police Chief Andrew Binder and psychologist and hate crimes specialist Dr. Rona Hu. Comments were made by Palo Alto Mayor Tom DuBois, council member Lydia Kou and City Manager Ed Shikada. Human Relations Commission Chair the Rev. Kaloma Smith served as the moderator.
Reifschneider noted that although the number of reported hate crimes might seem small, they are on the rise and seem to be getting more violent. For the 10-year period between 2006-2015, the city averaged 3.6 reported hate crimes per year. Those numbers began to rise in 2016 as hate rhetoric escalated nationally, with the city having seven reported hate crimes, a doubling of the previous trend. In 2020, police received six hate-crime reports and in 2021, there have been eight hate crimes reported so far.
In the past, nearly all of the hate crimes involved vandalism such as graffiti, but so far this year there's been an escalation in violent hate-based crime. In January, a woman in her 40s was arrested after accosting a man in the California Avenue business district where he refused to give her money. She struck him with objects and made hate comments related to his Middle Eastern descent, police said. She was arrested for assault and battery and a hate crime.
On Oct. 10, police arrested a 26-year-old man for allegedly assaulting two people, one of whom is gay, after following them on the street from a party. He allegedly repeatedly made anti-gay comments and attacked a woman, an acquaintance of the assailant, after a man in his 60s and his companion parted ways with the woman. When the older man came to the woman's aid, the 26-year-old beat him severely and threw the woman to the ground. The older man remains hospitalized; the assailant remains in jail, Reifschneider said.
The two attacks were significant outliers; the city's other hate crimes this year were vandalism, he said.
Binder said Palo Alto police stand ready to investigate and arrest any hate crime and he encouraged the public to contact the department no matter how small or slight they think an incident might be.
"There is no place for hate in our community," he said.
Awareness is key, and that's why the public will see more incidents in the news, he added. The department is also now cataloging hate incidents, which involve comments and behavior that don't involve a crime but are nonetheless disturbing or intimidating to the victims.
West, who heads hate crime investigations at the District Attorney's Office, said that to constitute a prosecutable hate crime, the incident must involve an actual crime such as an assault, theft or vandalism, which is determined to have been perpetrated because of the victim's race, sex, religion, gender identification or ethnicity. A person calling someone a name or telling them to go back to their country isn't a hate crime but it is a hate incident. As an example, West said someone who spits on an Asian woman while she is shopping or shoves her and uses a racial epithet is a hate crime since it involves assault and also was done with a clear, intentional bias.
Most road rage incidents, mental health cases, domestic violence situations and events at sporting events don't have the element of hate as being the primary motivation for a hate crime, even though someone might make a hateful comment, she said.
Black residents continue to be the most victimized by hate crimes, with Latinos and Asians also being victims in Santa Clara County, West said. The largest rise so far this year has been among Asians, who are also victims of the most violent attacks. Many of those crimes involve purse snatchings because of biased beliefs that the victim won't fight back or they carry a lot of money, West said.
Hu, a psychologist, said that victims of hate crimes often go through stages of grief. Victims can feel intimidated and the incidents can have a real impact on their sense of self and their motivation.
"Give yourself permission to feel bad," she said, and then progress to the stage of taking positive action. "Don't let these things stop you and pay it forward."
Hu said there are ways people can pay it forward and safely intervene by not being an innocent bystander.
"Say, 'That's not fair,' or 'Hey, give her some room'" if it's safe to do so. Sometimes distraction can diffuse a situation, such as asking for directions or the time. One can approach the victim as a friend they were to meet and get the victim safely out of the area. A delay in intervention might mean checking on the victim after the incident to make sure they are OK. One can accompany the victim to find customer service or security, for example.
Reifschneider said that people can help by bearing witness to an incident and documenting it from a safe distance on a smartphone or video and calling the police. He said he hopes people will step forward so the city can have an accurate gauge of hate crimes and incidents and to bring the perpetrators to justice.
"We can't remain silent," Mayor DuBois said. "We need to take action and support those people" who are being victimized.
Watch the full meeting: