Hate and Bias: Maine's Attorney General and a few municipalities have responded to the rise in hate crimes and bias incidents with initiatives and procedures
(from Maine Townsman, December 1993)
by Jo Josephson, Staff Writer

"The burning of a cross in front of a mixed race family's home, the painting of a swastika on the front door of a Jewish synagogue, the physical assault of gays and lesbians, the knifing of a black man by two white men wearing hoods, are all examples of incidents which have happened in Maine in the recent past. Such conduct cannot and will not lie tolerated in this State. Hate crimes are enormously destructive to the victims and, furthermore, are destructive to our society as a whole..."

Portion of a letter from Maine Attorney General Michael Carpenter to every Chief of Police in the State of Maine, July 23, 1992

Crimes of Hate. Incidents of bias. They are occurring across the State of Maine. Not just in Bangor or Portland or Lewiston, but in smaller towns as well. If you doubt it, then you have not read of the racial incidents in Oakland, Madison, Machias and Pittsfield that occurred during the past two years.

If you doubt it, ask Deputy Attorney General Steve Wessler, who heads up the new civil rights division in the Maine Attorney General's Office. At a briefing of the Maine Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights this past September, Wessler testified that "Maine is a far more hateful place . . . to minorities than anyone should feel comfortable with."

In its first year of operation, Wessler told the committee, his division had received more than 200 complaints of hate crimes and bias incidents against Blacks, Jews, Gays and Lesbians, Hispanics and Asians.

Not only that, his office had filed 14 civil rights lawsuits, the same number, he noted as had been filed that year by the AG's office in Massachusetts, a state with a population 10 to 15 times greater than Maine!

There were 25 people who testified before the committee that day. Telling their story were Blacks, Cambodians, Jews, and American Indians and Lesbians.

Tong Savaun of the Maine Khmer Council recalled the incident of an 18 year-old Cambodian who was beaten unconscious in a Portland pinball club. Meyer Bodoff of the Jewish Federation of Southern Maine spoke of swastikas and obscene phone calls.

Janet Johnson of the National Association of Colored People (NAACP) told the committee that the problem in Maine was the result of "ignorance", ignorance born of a lack of familiarity with other races and cultures."

It's not surprising. Maine is the second "whitest " state in the nation; Vermont is first. Maine is 98.4 percent white. Blacks constitute less than one-half of one percent of the population.

But the actual numbers, not the percentages, are actually more than you would think. Maine is changing. According to the 1990 Census, of the 1.2 million people in Maine, approximately 5,000 are Black; 6,000 are Indian; 7,000 are Asian; and 7,000 are of Hispanic origin. There are no numbers in the census for Gays and Lesbians. Nor are there numbers for the migrant workers and Jews.

Johnson told the committee, The only way to overcome ignorance is by education."

Wessler and many others testifying that day before the Committee, including Portland Police Chief Michael Chitwood, agreed with Johnson stating that hate and bias crimes were not just a police problem, but a community problem and as such could only be solved by the community as a whole.

This article looks briefly at some of the initiatives recently undertaken by the Maine Attorney General's Office in response to the rise in hate crimes in Maine. It looks at those initiatives in terms of the responsibilities of municipal officials. And it looks at one police department in the state- the Portland Police Department- and how it has joined with its minority community in dealing with the issue.

But first, a few comments about the power of the words we use when talking about such crimes and incidents.

 THE WORDS

Mark Dion, who heads up the Bias Crime Unit of the Portland Police Department, says he tries to avoid using the more popular term "crimes of hate" when referring to crimes motivated by prejudice based on race, religion, or sexual orientation.

"The word hate is inflammatory," says Dion, a native of Lewiston. "It shields what we all possess and that is bias." So while state reporting forms use the word hate, Dion and the Portland P.D. stick with the word bias, making it "The Word" in its standard operating procedures for dealing with "Bias Crimes"..

Freely quoting from those procedures, Dion defines a Bias Crime as Any crime be it burglary, assault or criminal mischief where the primary motive is one of prejudice." As for a Bias Incidence, it is defined as "behavior that is not necessarily criminal but is very divisive socially."

Dion says that bias incidents are "the first stone in the pond"; that they are thrown by bigots who are testing their community's response, be it through leafleting or offensive telephone calls, or demonstrative behavior in public.

The question for Dion regarding the biases that we all possess is not how do we suppress them but rather how do we manage them?

When it comes to the words prejudice and discrimination, Dion says they are not the same, that there is a "very subtle" difference between them. "Prejudice," says Dion, "is the thought you hold about a person; discrimination is when you apply your power over the welfare of that person, denying them access to an apartment, for example.

Dion also stresses the importance of understanding what a negative word tolerance is. As he sees it, schools should not be teaching tolerance (remember Madison High school's "Tolerance Day" several years ago?), rather schools should be what he calls celebrating diversity.

Dion believes that when we teach tolerance we are helping to suppress and deny our prejudices. "We want to put our prejudices out there so people can have a dialogue, so we can d construct them , says Dion , adding that "the best way to deal with the monster is to put it out there in the light of day."

If there is any advice that Dion has to offer to Maine's cities and town it is: Don't deny it (prejudice) is there; denial is a knee jerk reaction. He suggests instead that communities experiencing acts of discrimination view them as "an opportunity to look at the issue; to get it out there and talk about it."

For Dion, the key question community leaders should ask themselves when an incident does occur is: Are we suppressing the opportunity for the dialogue to occur?

 THE NUMBERS

Dion says when the number of bias complaints in Portland go up, he sees it as a "positive sign". "It tells me that in Portland we have been able to establish psychological safety; that people feel safe in coming to us; that people see us as an avenue for redress."

While the Portland police have been documenting the number of hate/bias crimes and incidences in their community since 1990, police departments around the state just began to do so in 1992.

The Law. The Hate Crime Statistics Act, passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by the President in April 1990 mandated a five-year data collection of crimes motivated by religious, ethnic, racial or sexual-oriented prejudice. Voluntary data collection from state Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) programs or direct contribution from local law enforcement agencies began on January 1, 1991.

On May 29, 1991, Governor John McKernan signed into law, "An Act to Improve the Collection of Data." The State Bureau of Identification added a UCR data collection requirement for a category of "crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation or ethnicity". The Act took effect in January, 1992.

The Numbers. Steve Bunker of the Maine Department of Public Safety, who developed the new UCR reporting form, says the numbers for 1992, the first year for including hate crimes, will be published early next year.

While he is still checking the numbers, Bunker says the number of hate crimes--not incidents, but crimes--reported in 1992 was between 30 and 35. Bunker says the crimes took place in about a dozen communities statewide and that they were reported by large as well as small communities.

Bunker stresses that just because a town or city has not reported a hate crime does not mean one has not occurred there. More likely, the town or city has not been aggressive in its reporting. For Bunker the "big unknown" is how much is not being reported. "The only numbers we report are those that become known," he says, adding that "the reporting of hate crimes is still in its infancy in Maine."

In addition to Bunker's UCR numbers, the Maine Attorney General's Office special hate crimes unit is also keeping a set of numbers. As noted above, in its first year of activity in 1993, it received more than 200 complaints and filed 14 civil rights lawsuits.

Reporting the Numbers. As part of the state's program to document the number of hate crimes, last year the Maine Attorney General's Office requested "that every police department within the state of Maine designate by August 15, 1992 a Civil Rights officer, who shall be responsible for identifying, reporting and investigating (or coordinating the investigation of) hate crimes."

In his letter to all of the police chiefs in the state, Attorney General Michael Carpenter stressed the importance of designating an experienced officer as the Civil Rights officer.

"Hate crimes are not always easy to identify and require a particular sensitivity which can only be acquired through a combination of training and experience.

 THE TRAINING

To date, more than 140 police officers from around the state have participated in a one day training session on detecting, reporting and investigating hate crimes, conducted by the Portland Police Department in conjunction with the Maine Attorney General's Office.

As the AG's Wessler told the TOWNSMAN, "Reporting is the second step; the first is to recognize that a hate crime has been committed, and that recognition requires training."

A man found beaten not far from a Gay bar could be viewed as a victim of an "assault" or he could be viewed as the victim of a hate crime. A cross burning on the lawn of a Black family's home could be viewed as a "minor incident" or "criminal mischief" or a mere case of "trespass" or it could be viewed as a hate crime.

"The key is to provide enough training so that police understand the significance of the event in terms of the victim's response, not how they themselves, the police, view it," says Wessler.

Wessler says that in the past most reports of hate crimes were filed by the victims or onlookers. He says it is encouraging that an increasing number of complaints are now being reported by police. He says he sees that as a sign that the training and the system is beginning to work.

Overall, Wessler says he is pleased with the response from local police. "While not every police department views the incidents as serious, most do," says Wessler.

 ROLE FOR MUNICIPAL OFFICIALS

Because most hate crimes are committed by young men in their late teens and early twenties, schools are being asked to take a major role in handling the issue.

But there are several roles, Wessler says, that municipal officials can play.

The bottom line in all communities, says Wessler, should be the safety of its residents, and by that Wessler means all of its residents. (see below for Portland's P.D. Mission Statement)

"Just because there are no persons of color does not mean their are no potential victims of hate crimes living in your community, says Wessler, referring to Gays and Lesbians, Jews, Fundamentalist Christians, etc.

Wessler says there are two things municipal officials can do regarding hate crimes in their community: they should reinforce and support their police in dealing with hate crimes and if their police departments do not respond accordingly to such incidents, they should see to it that they do.

"If police do not respond appropriately, the number of related incidents will escalate," warns Wessler, noting that all hate crimes are repetitive and escalating; the person who commits the hate crime will do so again and again and each time he or she does, the crime will be more serious.

"You don't want a major problem," says Wessler.

Nor do you want a lawsuit.

According to MMA's senior Staff Attorney Richard Flewelling, a municipality can be held liable under federal law for civil rights violations by its police officers, if discrimination is municipal policy, custom, or procedure.

"Discriminatory practices or tolerance for racial, ethnic, religious and other insensitivities can be used to show the existence of a municipal policy," says Flewelling.

In other words, says Flewelling, actual practice in the absence of a formal policy is still a policy.

Having affirmative policies that discourage a racially insensitive internal atmosphere (discouraging racial slurs in the squad room) is good defensive law, advises Flewelling.

Another way to practice defensive law, says Flewelling, is to be proactive externally--setting up a bias crime unit, appointing a civil rights ombudsman, etc.

"Either approach can be used as evidence that it is not municipal policy to tolerate discrimination," says Flewelling.

 PORTLAND'S COMMUNITY TASK FORCE ON BIAS CRIME

Portland has the dubious distinction of being the first city in Maine to engage in investigating hate crimes. For good reason. It is home to 18 religious, racial, ethnic and sexual orientation communities. Six different languages are spoken in the playgrounds of its schools.

In 1989, the Portland Police Department initiated a partnership with various minority leaders. Today the group--much expanded--is known as the "Community Task Force on Bias Crime".

As Dion sees it, by reaching out to the leaders of the minority communities, "the police took a major step in giving up their addiction to managing public safety." In effect the police were saying to the minority community leaders, "Join us as a full and equal partner in combating hate crimes. We need your energy."

The Task Force not only provides the police officers with an opportunity to explore and appreciate the diversity of the minority groups in the city, it also provides the minority representatives with exposure to the "culture of the police."

While members of the Task Force receive investigative briefings on hate crimes/incidents so as to counter the invariable rumors surrounding such incidents, they also serve as Crisis intervention aides" with the victims of the hate crimes, serving as a bridge between the victim and his or her community and the police.

But law enforcement issues are not the only focus of the Task Force. A second component of the Task Force effort revolves around community education.

Toward that end, the Task Force spawned the Diversity Leadership Institute in conjunction with the Holocaust Human Rights Center in Palermo, Maine. As noted above, most perpetrators of hate crimes are young people in their late teens or early twenties. As such the goal of the Institutes is to work with schools in Maine to foster among other things the appreciation of diversity. The program recently received national recognition from the National League of Cities through its Innovation Awards Competition.


Portland Police Department Standard Operating Procedures for Bias Crime Investigations:

"The Mission Statement of the Portland Police Department mandates a commitment to reduce the perception of fear. Additionally, we must provide a safe and caring environment for the residents of this City. Any incident driven by hate shatters the reality of these safeguards. Moreover, unlike traditional crime, hate victimization is not limited solely to the targeted individual but ripples outward to intimidate all members of the minority group in question.

"It is the policy of this Department to assign the highest priority to the investigation of bias-related conduct. This is an expression of municipal government's resolve to convey the strongest possible message that such conduct will not be tolerated.

"The Department also acknowledges the crucial role of civic and community leaders in the resolution of bias crime/incidents; this takes the form of participation in the Community Task Force on Bias Crime. This policy validates the critical police-community partnership which must exist if we are to effectively counter the ignorance of bigotry."

(The above statement was developed jointly by the Portland Police Department and the city's Community Task Force on Bias Crime).