What exactly is involved in a hate crime, and how do you report one?

The nationwide rise in hate crime isn’t being seen in Bellingham, despite local incidents that many saw as racist and concerns about a white supremacist group distributing literature in Ferndale.

Recent incidents in Ferndale — involving flyers for a violent hate group and the display of a Confederate flag — happened as Americans were debating racist language from the White House and mourning a mass murder in Texas that targeted people of Mexican heritage.

Meanwhile, a July 30 Quinnipiac Poll shows that Americans remain sharply divided over racism.

So what exactly is a hate crime, and how do you report one?

Bellingham Police spokeswoman Lt. Claudia Murphy said that state law defines a hate crime as malicious harassment — including an assault or property damage — against victims targeted because of their race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, or mental, physical, or sensory handicap.

It’s a Class C felony, carrying a sentence of up to five years in prison and fines up to $10,000.

“Sadly, being a racist is not illegal,” Murphy said in an interview with The Bellingham Herald.

“You can have racist thoughts and think racist things. The crime comes into play when the (law) is met,” she said.

And it’s often difficult to prove.

What’s a hate crime?

“If you call someone the N-word and walk away, it’s racist,” Murphy said. “It’s ignorant. It’s uncouth. It could be disorderly conduct, if we want to press it. But does it rise to the level of malicious harassment?”

Not without an assault, a threat, or property damage.

“The assault has to be based on the fact that the person is in a protected class,” Murphy said. “If I punch you in the face, that’s an assault. But if I punch you in the face because you’re Sikh or gay, and I know it — that’s a hate crime.”

Murphy said that repeated racist language directed at a single person could become harassment, actionable under civil or criminal law, but it isn’t necessarily a hate crime.

“You can’t go around harassing someone because they are Jewish,” she said. “While that may not rise to the level of a hate crime, it can rise to harassment. But does it rise to the level of malicious harassment?”

Hate crimes in Bellingham, WWU

There were 7,175 total hate crimes reported nationwide in 2017, according to the most recent figures available from the FBI.

That’s up from 6,121 hate crimes in 2016, and 5,850 in 2015.

FBI statistics show that Bellingham recorded 11 hate crimes in 2017.

Murphy said Bellingham Police investigated 13 hate crime complaints in 2018, and two incidents qualified as a hate crime under the law.

Police have conducted 15 investigations so far this year, with three that met the legal standard, she said.

At Western Washington University, there was one reported hate crime in 2017, five in 2018 and one through May 2019, said WWU spokesman Paul Cocke.

Cocke said the 2017 crime was an anti-Muslim defacing of a poster.

“In 2018 there were five reported hate crimes, including two separate crimes on the vandalism of the books in the Jewish section in the library. There also was a swastika drawn on a residence hall poster but police believe that was targeting LGBTQ folks,” Cocke said in a May email.

This year, a swastika was scratched on the wall in a stairwell at Haggard Hall, but Cocke said its intended target was unclear.

Even so, drawing a swastika is one of two acts that are unquestionably a hate crime under the law, Murphy said. The other is a burning cross, a symbol of white supremacist terror in the Jim Crow South.

“No one ever burned a cross for any other purpose,” she said.

Free speech vs. hate speech

But flying a Confederate flag isn’t racist without supporting evidence, Murphy said. And people are free to fly a Nazi flag.

That debate over Americans’ First Amendment rights was front and center in a Bellingham Herald story about the Confederate flag at a parade in Ferndale — a story that had more than 300 comments, reactions and shares at The Herald’s page on Facebook.

Some readers said the flag is part of U.S. history and therefore not a racist symbol. Others said the flag represents slavery, Jim Crow and a history of repression against blacks and other minorities.

Meanwhile, Ferndale Police were investigating flyers promoting a white supremacist group that appeared shortly after the Old Settlers Grand Parade on July 27.

Many Herald readers on Facebook took no issue with posters advertising the Patriot Front, a white nationalist group that the Southern Poverty Law Center links to the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. That Facebook post drew more than 600 reactions, comments and shares.

But both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League — organizations that track hate groups, bigotry and anti-Semitism — have the Patriot Front on their watch lists.

How hate groups work

Miri Cypers, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Pacific Northwest region in Seattle, said racist organizations like Patriot Front often used coded or subdued language when they start to organize in a new area.

“They want to put something out to the public that seems innocuous,” Cypers said in an interview with The Herald. “When you dig deeper and become more educated, it’s very apparent how racist and anti-Semitic they are.”

She cited one of the Patriot Front’s posters, which urged people to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement if they see an unauthorized immigrant.

“It’s clearly equating immigrants and undocumented people as being criminals,” Cypers said.

“It’s important that we establish clear lines about what’s acceptable. White supremacists are clearly pushing the line” and are growing more bold, she said.

“A lot of their flyers are being placed in local communities,” Cypers said. “This is a climate in which minority groups are experiencing a rise in hate crimes. It’s important that people are sensitive to that and that we have a community that pushes back.”

How a case becomes a hate crime

It’s also important to report a hate crime to 911 or the police non-emergency line of 360-778-8800 if you’re a victim or a witness, both Cypers and Murphy said.

Murphy said that malicious harassment sometimes requires a lengthy inquiry.

If a patrol officer suspects a hate crime, or if a victim claims protected status, then a supervisor is called and officers collect evidence, including photos and witness statements. Then the case is forwarded to detectives for further investigation.

“At the end, they determine if it meets the criteria,” Murphy said.

Bellingham Police has posted its policy on bias crimes at the city’s website.

“I want people to understand that we take these incidents very seriously,” Murphy said. “But we can’t investigate if they don’t report it. It is unfortunate that such crimes take place and we want to do everything we can to provide the victim the opportunity to make such reports. Knowing that there can be discomfort and apprehension in making reports regarding hate or bias crimes we have multiple ways for people to make reports, including starting off with a phone call or meeting in a neutral place, like the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center.”

Victims sometimes feel shame

Cypers said that hate crime victims could be reluctant to call police for a variety of reasons.

“It could be a culture of not wanting to bring shame or call attention to the crime,” Cypers said. “It could be distrust of the police, or immigration status, or lack of education about the importance of reporting a crime.”

She encouraged victims to contact the Seattle ADL at its website or by calling 206-448-5349.

“If they’re uncomfortable contacting law enforcement, we can be a bridge or liaison to law enforcement,” Cypers said. “There’s still a need to push back against hateful messages that are meant to incite fear.”

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Covering hate

Bellingham Herald journalists would like to hear from you if you have been the victim of or witnessed a hate crime or experienced hate speech. We’d also like to know if you have information about hate groups operating in Whatcom County.

You can email us directly at newsroom@bellinghamherald.com or use the online tip form if you wish to protect your identity. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to communicate with reporters and editors as safely and securely as possible.

While in some cases we may ask to use your name in a news report, we would not do so without your permission.

Robert Mittendorf covers civic issues, weather, traffic and how people are coping with the high cost of housing for The Bellingham Herald. A journalist since 1984, he’s also a volunteer firefighter for South Whatcom Fire Authority.