The abuse began after a dispute at Janelle Burke’s former workplace. A file at the King County Sheriff’s Office includes images of Facebook posts from a person with a “White Lives Matter” avatar. They describe in graphic detail the ways Burke would die, deploying racial epithets as though they were her name. How they could get to her children. What they would do.
The weight of the stress, terror and frustration hurt Burke’s heart and made her sick, literally clogging her arteries, according to her doctor. Burke tried to calm herself down, reminding herself that if the person threatening her was going to go through with it, they would have.
She told herself she would not let them stress her out.
“In reality, my heart was beating a mile a minute, and I was feeling sick,” Burke said.
Burke’s is one of 115 stories of hate and bias crimes reported to the Seattle Police Department (SPD) and King County Sheriff’s Office in 2016. That year the number of reports of bias crimes and incidents in the country spiked, an increase the Southern Poverty Law Center said coincided with the racist, misogynistic and xenophobic rhetoric of now-President Donald Trump.
Reports of hate crimes and incidents jumped 24 percent in 2016, and as 2017 grinds to its conclusion, the rate has only sped up. The first half of 2017 showed a 41 percent increase in hate crimes and incidents compared to the same period during the previous year.
Seattle city officials recognized the significance of the moment and the need to protect marginalized groups. In response, they are pushing forward legal defense funds for undocumented residents and launching the “Bias Hurts” campaign for residents experiencing slurs, threats, intimidation and online abuse. An online dashboard made reports immediately available to the public at the click of a mouse.
It also led Councilmember Lisa Herbold to call for an audit of the Seattle Police Department’s practices regarding bias and hate-crime reporting, which was released Sept. 20.
The auditor examined data and policies from SPD, the Seattle Office for Civil Rights (SOCR) and Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) to identify how the police department in particular uses hate-crime data and what officers and others do to “identify, respond to and prevent hate crimes.” A second report will look at how to improve the use of data and how reports translate into investigation and prosecution.
Much of that falls into the purview of Det. Elizabeth Wareing, the bias crimes coordinator for SPD. Wareing’s job is part investigation, part data analysis and part public relations. She not only makes the arrests, but she actively works to improve the system by looking past the reports that come to her to identify communities or groups that seem likely to experience bias crimes or incidents and doing outreach.
From her perspective, the number of incidents and crimes that SPD does know about is both encouraging and a sign that there’s more work to do. The department receives more bias crimes reports than almost any other city of a similar size, second only to Boston.
That’s higher than many states.
“High numbers are indicative of effective outreach and public trust,” Wareing said.
But the number of reports that make it to SPD are “the tip of the iceberg,” she said, and the audit found evidence to suggest that many crimes that might have a bias or hate element to them could be going unnoticed.
When an officer classifies a report, they can flag whether or not an incident or crime had an element of bias to it. There were 36 different options and, until this report was released, one of them was “unknown.”
That category, sometimes referred to as “99,” got quite a bit of use. Too much, according to the auditor. Between 2012 and 2016, 13,782 to 22,001 reports each year were marked “unknown.”
“This may have resulted in SPD under-counting hate crimes,” the report found.
The auditor recommended removing “unknown” from the menu and adding four other categories including age, parental status, marital status and political ideology.
Wareing acknowledges that the codes influence data collection and the ability to pull reports, but pushes back on the idea that the marker “unknown” has an impact on the investigation of a case.
“If you have a detective that is looking at a case, a button that the patrol officer clicked at the inception of the report does not determine the way you investigate the case,” Wareing said. “Not even a little.”
The department is in the process of transitioning to a new records management system, at which point the auditor suggested finding a different “placeholder” bias code and allowing the officers to select multiple potential sources of bias.
Other recommendations included more training on bias and hate crimes, deploying the data to identify hot spots and possible ways to prevent crimes, more coordination among the three agencies that collect hate-crime and incident data and more transparency on incidents of bias and hate from SPU and SOCR.
The numbers can feel clinical and detached, more metrics in a city that centers data and those who work with it in a multiplicity of ways. But behind the numbers are people like Burke who are threatened online or a victim walking innocently down the street only to have slurs shouted at them by a person in a passing car.
These kinds of crime are in a category apart because they can happen anytime, anywhere with little or no warning. They cause shock and a certain kind of terror.
There are things that community members can do. Be a good witness. Help a person report the crime in the moment. Observe suspect characteristics.
Offenders need to be investigated and held accountable for their actions so that others harboring hateful views will know there are consequences, said Jasmin Samy, director of civil rights at the Council on American-Islamic Relations Washington.
“Those who hate us don’t hate more, but they’ve been empowered,” she said. “They’ve been given permission to act upon that hate.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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