Some hate crimes are so heinous there’s no debate about whether they should be prosecuted. But the law isn’t always so clear-cut for police. Oregon is a good example.
Hassania heard the footsteps one late summer evening in downtown Portland, Ore.
She was on her way home from work. Hassania, a Muslim woman from Morocco, wore a hijab, as she does every day, and bright-colored clothing bejeweled at the wrists. The hem of her kaftan hovered just barely off the ground.
The footsteps grew closer. Then she saw him — an older white man with gray hair and glasses ran at Hassania from behind and then got in her face, blocking her way. He stood just inches from her.
“Too close to my body,” Hassania said.
The man raised his middle finger at her, then spat at her feet.
She gasped and shouted a sarcastic remark about his impoliteness. The man ran off.
As the noise of his footsteps receded, she asked herself one question over and over:
“Why? Why? Just why?” Hassania said. “Maybe because I’m a Muslim, African woman?”
Hassania came to the United States in July to share the work she’s doing teaching Moroccan girls from the countryside about leadership skills and gender equality issues. The image of America she had formed in her mind while studying U.S. history in books and classes 5,700 miles away — an America where racism is a thing of the past, where everyone, regardless of background, is welcome if they’re willing to contribute to society — began to unravel.
Once safely home, she called friends to ask for advice. One told her to take off her hijab. She couldn’t fathom that.
“’No, don’t say that to me,’” she remembered telling the friend. “’Please, this is my identity, this is me. This is not easy to take it off.’”
Another friend advised her to call the Portland Police Bureau. That friend told her to report the incident as a hate crime.
Within hours of last month’s horrific attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue, federal prosecutors charged the shooter with multiple hate crimes: obstruction of the exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death and obstruction of religious beliefs resulting in injury to a police officer.
In Kentucky, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called for the death penalty for the man accused of targeting and shooting two African-Americans last week at a grocery store in his home state.
“If these are not hate crimes,” McConnell said, “I don’t know what a hate crime is.”
But the judicial system isn’t always so clear-cut, and people who lash out in hateful ways aren’t always criminals according to the law.
Under Oregon law, a hate crime occurs when a person or group damages property, does something threatening or subjects another person to offensive physical contact “because of the person’s perception of the other’s race, color, religion, sexual orientation, disability or national origin.”
It’s a very specific legal definition, one that police, sheriffs and district attorneys say often falls short of satisfying people who have experienced hateful behavior.
“It is really difficult to provide the solution a community member is looking for and is asking for,” said officer Natasha Haunsperger, who works in the Portland Police Bureau’s community engagement office. “It’s such a major disconnect in what we can do versus perception once you’re a victim of a hate crime.”
That’s because law enforcement officials must have enough probable cause to determine an alleged perpetrator intentionally threatened or assaulted someone because of a victim’s race, color, religion, national origin or sexual orientation. Unless they occur in conjunction with a crime, derogatory statements about a person’s race or religion, while hostile, aren’t unlawful.
In fact, they’re protected by the First Amendment.
“You are allowed to use hurtful, awful, disgusting words; you’re allowed to say that under our Constitution,” said Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel. “You’re not allowed to threaten somebody, put someone in fear of imminent physical violence.”
Hassania called Portland Police a day after she was accosted.
The officer she spoke with wouldn’t take a police report because, Hassania later recalled, he said what had happened to her was not a crime.
If the police arrested everyone in Portland who offended someone, the officer added, police would have to arrest everyone in Portland. Under the law, he explained, there was nothing they could do.
Hassania, who asked to be identified by just her first name to protect her from further abuse, said the officer she spoke with made her feel like an idiot.
“My dream of America became nightmare of America,” she said.
Hassania wasn’t alone when she called the police. Seemab Hussaini, who chairs Oregon’s chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, was with her when she made the call and was appalled at what he overheard.
On Aug. 24, the day after Hassania called the police, CAIR-Oregon publicly denounced the Portland Police Bureau’s response.
“These are statements that marginalize affected communities, remove power or any hope of being recognized for victimhood,” Hussaini said.
That tension between what people — particularly people of color — expect when they call the police for help and what law enforcement officers can legally prosecute under the law plays out time and time again in communities across the Northwest and around the country.
Within many communities of color, skepticism toward law enforcement is rooted in historic precedent. And now, with a spike in reported hate crimes since the election of President Donald Trump and a spate of attacks fueled by hate, there’s more pressure for law enforcement to get it right. If they don’t, critics say, hate festers and the people police have sworn to protect end up feeling even less safe.
Documenting Hate To Address Hate
Hassania’s call to the police would have been handled differently just a few hours south in Eugene, Ore., which has the largest number of documented hate crimes in the state, and where city officials have taken a different approach to hate.
There, she would have had the option to report what happened to her to the city’s Office of Human Rights and Neighborhood Involvement even if the police decided there was no crime to investigate. Information about the incident would then also be collected by the Eugene Police Department and reviewed by city officials and police, who meet quarterly to make sure each complaint about hateful behavior is correctly labeled.
Those results are put into an annual report analyzed by the city’s Human Rights Commission.
So far, all that additional information and analysis haven’t led to specific policy changes in Eugene. But just keeping track is important, city leaders say.
“It allows us to give them something that’s more actionable than showing the empathy of understanding how they feel about something and explaining to them it doesn’t necessarily rise to a criminal level,” said Lt. David Natt, who heads up bias crimes and documentation for the Eugene Police Department.
“We still get the opportunity in the community to recognize that we’ve had this event.”
Eugene residents say that process gives law enforcement a clearer sense of what’s happening in their communities. That’s important because hate and bias crimes tend to be under-reported nationwide.
Eugene’s unique system of documenting hate and bias incidents has a magnifying effect:
The number of hate crimes reported in Oregon nearly doubled from 2015 to 2016 — a jump from 66 to 104. Portland — Oregon’s largest city — had 10 hate crimes reported in 2016, according to data voluntarily reported to the FBI. Eugene had 38.
The numbers in Eugene last year, which include both incidents and actual crimes, are even higher, at 139. According to the most recent data, vandalism replaced intimidation as the most common hate crime charge, and race remains the leading motivating factor. Reports of vandalism involved swastikas; racist, homophobic and transphobic slurs; and white nationalist recruitment material.
The data also shows African-Americans are significantly overrepresented as victims of hate and bias crimes. Of the 31 reported race-related hate crimes, 25 were committed against African-Americans.
“Those reporting mechanisms have helped,” said Eric Richardson, president of the Eugene chapter of the NAACP. “It’s a way for us to see what the problems are.”
By documenting hate, he said, you address hate.
Eugene’s approach casts a wider net because it documents bias incidents on top of hate crimes. Hussaini, with CAIR-Oregon, said that would be helpful in Portland, where only hate crimes — those incidents that appear to meet the legal definition of a hate crime — are tracked.
“Track the culture,” Hussaini said. “Track the culture behind what causes a hate crime to occur. They can be circumvented, stopped if they are found early.”
Portland Considers Another Approach To Hate
Recently, the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) invited officers from Eugene to exchange information about how they document hate. They met with Natt, the Eugene lieutenant who heads the city’s bias unit, and a representative from Eugene’s Human Rights and Neighborhood Involvement division.
In August, following that meeting, PPB launched a public database of potential bias and hate crime statistics.
But the data doesn’t include incidents such as Hassania’s. Rather, the data only illustrates incidents that officers have deemed a crime, meaning they took the initial step of officially documenting what happened. In launching the new public tool, PPB said it hopes to “increase transparency and encourage the community to report instances of possible bias and hate crimes to the PPB, regardless of the nature or type of incident.”
Portland police say when it comes to documenting more bias incidents, they need help from the community. In fact, the city already has a foundation for a system like the one that exists in Eugene.
Portland Detective Jeff Sharp, who investigates bias crimes, said the bureau is hoping to work with Portland United Against Hate, a partnership of community organizations, neighborhood associations and the city. Portland City Council awarded $40,000 to PUAH in 2017 for a pilot project to collect, track and analyze hate incidents.
Findings from the program’s first year show that hate crimes go unreported in Portland because of an expectation of inaction when a victim reports: People don’t call the police because they don’t think the police will do anything. Organizers also found that the process for reporting hate crimes needs to take into account a victim’s trauma and, above all, avoid exacerbating it.
There’s also the Police Bureau’s Muslim Advisory Council, which is made up of leaders in the Muslim community. Its members meet every month with officers. Those interactions help the community feel heard, said Laila Hajoo, president of the Islamic Social Services of Oregon State, a Portland-based nonprofit.
“A lot of the refugees that come here are terrified to bring up issues with authorities because they are afraid of deportation, or because it’s going to make their life more miserable,” Hajoo said. “If they can confide in us, then we have an opportunity to discuss this at the council” — and police officers can engage.
While the bureau is making strides, it still falls short of a system for tracking incidents such as Hassania’s. And from Hassania’s perspective, the reality is that talking about hate isn’t as powerful as documenting it.
“Now, I felt like, ‘No, I have to protect myself,’” she said.
It took Hassania weeks to process what happened to her. She missed several days of work because she was afraid to go outside. She even attended the Portland Police Bureau’s “WomenStrength” self-defense workshops.
More than a month after the incident, Hassania attended a seminar titled “Islamophobia Workshop: Strategies for Survival” at a mosque in Beaverton, Ore. She was eager to hear other people’s experiences with hate and reflections on why they occurred.
Among the attendees were Destinee Mangum and Walia Mohamed, the two girls who prosecutors say were targeted aboard a MAX train in 2017, just before a white man stabbed three people, killing two. Mohamed wore a hijab at the time of the attack, just as Hassania does.
Hassania stood and faced the two girls. “I want to thank you so much for being here,” she told them.
Then, she retold the events of that late summer evening on her way home from work to those in attendance at the seminar. She turned to the dozen or so people in the room, and posed a question: “Who will protect me if the police didn’t protect me?”
What Hassania wanted, and still wants, is for someone from the city of Portland—anyone—to say that what happened to her matters in the eyes of law enforcement.
This is a slightly edited version of a broadcast report by Erica Cruz Guevarra and Conrad Wilson of Oregon Public Radio. Wilson is a 2018 John Jay Rural Justice Reporting Fellow. For the complete broadcast, please click here.