How Can Civic Leaders Respond to Hate Crimes?

Hate crimes target many groups. A spike of anti-Semitic crimes in 2016 includes vandalism of walls of a Beverly, Mass. synagogue with "Merry Christmas" and a dollar sign.
Courtesy: Congregation B'nai Abraham

Hate crimes are on the rise for some groups. The ADL advises on essential community responses and strategies communities can take when hate hits home.

The New England Regional Office of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released its 2016 numbers to the Boston Globe. ADL shared that so far in 2016, there have already been 56 anti-Semitic incidents in the region. That’s a spike from 2015, which saw a total of 61 reported for the full year.

Anti-Semitic incidents are hate crimes by definition under the 1990 Hate Crimes Statistics Act: “crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, gender or gender identity, religion, disability, sexual orientation or ethnicity.” Thus far in New England, anti-Semitic hate crime incidents range from harassment to graffiti, such as the May 22nd vandalism at Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly, Mass. The words “Merry Christmas” and a large dollar sign appeared on the building’s back walls overnight.

According to the Associated Press, community groups around the nation are reporting hate crime increases, such as the gay and transgender community, or the Muslim community, which has been mapping U.S. incidents of reported anti-Muslim hate crimes since last year’s Paris, France, terrorist bombings. Under the Hate Crimes Law, the  U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) tracks hate crimes in every jurisdiction based on race, religion, orientation, disabilities and other categories, but current trends data is only available through 2014 and many agencies aren’t reporting.

Regardless of which groups are being targeted, communities may face hate crimes at one point or another. What can civic leaders do to address incidents when they happen?

“Leadership is critical,” says ADL’s Regional Director Robert Trestan, who has been working with New England communities on such incidents since 2005.

Take Non-Violent Incidents Seriously

On May 30,  Trestan told the Jewish Telegapahic Agency (JTA) in a story about three incidents, including the Beverly synagogue and swastikas painted on signs and in parking lots at Andover, Mass., and Pawtucket, R.I., synagogues that graffiti should not be dismissed because the weapon is a can of spray paint.

“The message of intimidation and hate is very strong,” he told JTA. “These are acts to intimidate Jews at sacred spaces,” Trestan said. “What’s next, if people are willing to spray paint at a house of worship, how far are they willing to go to spread a message?”

His point foreshadowed the Orlando, Fla., Pulse night club massacre, which is being investigated as a hate crime against the gay community as well as home-grown extremist terrorism.

Essential Community Responses

In a scheduled call today with EfficientGov to discuss the steps and strategies local governments and community leaders can take to respond to hate crimes, Trestan said vandalism and other hate crime incidents are designed to send a message, whether its at the Jewish community, Muslim community, gay community, etc…

These kinds of crimes are different than any other type of crime–it warrants a different response, and different reaction on the proactive side,” he said.

He added that 100 people would probably not show up to talk about each graffiti incident as they did on June 2 to discuss the anti-Semitic vandalism in Beverly, Mass.

The following steps can help all communities respond to hate crime incidents.

  1. Send a counter-message – How each community responds varies, but it’s important that community leaders join that response. In Beverly, Mayor Mike Cahill’s chief of staff, the Beverly police department chief and several clergy from the city and nearby cities joined ADL at the community forum. When the president of the synagogue talked about knowing what to do when these things happen, Trestan said that talking about it as a community is the most important response. “It is very important to send a counter message back,” said Trestan. Sometimes the forum itself is the message back because community members may feel vulnerable and they want to do something. “Community leaders need to become involved right away,” said Trestan.
  2. Treat the incidents as law enforcement priorities – According to Trestan, this requires ongoing police training that senior law enforcement needs to provide. That way, police officers recognize right away when certain types of vandalism or incidents are actually hate crimes. The ADL compiles a list of U.S. cities that Do Not Report or reported zero hate crimes each year. Identifying and reporting incidents is critical to coordinating regional and national responses and resources.
  3. Build community relationships with law enforcement – This actually should happen before there is an incident, said Trestan. The first telephone call a community group has with a police department should not be right after a hate crime, he advised. Law enforcement should form strong relationships with all community groups

Education & Communication Strategies for Prevention

In 2013 when Bedford, Mass., Superintendent of School Jon Sills learned that kids in schools were targeting their Jewish peers with made-up games and other derogatory terms and disturbing anti-Semitic vandalism was beginning to appear around schools, he decided to do something about it.

As he told an educators’ professional development forum in Burlington, Mass., last year, “any act of hate is a potential act of violence.”

In what ADL considers a a gold standard of community response, Bedford employed the following education tactics and more:

  • The local clergy launched a “Love Your Neighbor, Bedford Embraces Diversity” campaign with bumper stickers and fliers.
  • Rabbi Susan Abramson worked with Bedford Police Chief Robert Bongiorno to build a relationship between his agency and the local Jewish community. They went to each others’ homes for Easter and Passover, the police chief joined ADL on a trip to Israel and they continue to share community events.
  • The community held a series of forums over many months.
  • Police Chief Bongiorno published a diversity update in the Bedford Citizen on incident investigations and upcoming community meetings about them.
  • The entire Bedford Police Department went through customized training offered by the ADL.
  • Elementary schools assigned a book about respecting differences to each grade and adopted lessons from a program on teaching tolerance.
  • The middle school deepened comparative religions and Holocaust lessons in classrooms, using the Facing History and Ourselves curriculum.
  • The schools partnered with a group called Facing History to train teachers and high school peer leaders on how to deal with racism, anti-Semitism and stereotyping.
  • The high school screened Not in Our Town, a story of response to incidents in Billings, Mont., and a history teacher taught a lesson about the swastika on the high school’s morning TV program.
  • The high school started a group called Walk in My Shoes, which held student forums.
  • The high school held a multicultural festival in April 2015, creating the opportunity for all groups to share themselves through performance, discussion, crafts and more.

Incidents in Bedford schools have reportedly slowed down since the end of the 2013-2014 school year. According to Trestan, the key to Bedford’s success is long-term commitment to inter-faith community relations.

It wasn’t a one-shot deal or a response to a particular thing. [People in the community] got to know each other very well,” he said.

For access to all the state laws against hate crime in the United States, review the chart on the ADL’s website.

Editor’s Note: Links updated October 29, 2018 to share the most recent data.

Access related security and training resources that help organizations address their hate crimes risks:

5 Steps for Religious & Community Center Security

ADL is Supporting More Schools Requesting Hate Crimes Help

About the author

Andrea Fox

Andrea Fox

Andrea Fox is Editor of EfficientGov.com and Senior Editor at Praetorian Digital. She is based in Massachusetts.