In 2016, in Bakersfield, California, Balmeet Singh was standing outside a restaurant when a man approached him, alleging Singh “was going to blow up this country.” The man threatened to kill him, Singh said, before throwing a drink in his face. The man, identified as David Hook, believed that Singh, who is Sikh, was Muslim.
“A complete stranger, someone I've never met before in my life, is accusing me of threatening my own home,” Singh said. “I grew up here. I live here. I was born in America, and to hear that really hurt.”
Singh said he called Bakersfield Police immediately after the attack but had to call multiple times before an officer would take a statement.
“The message that I heard was, essentially, ‘If you're not physically injured, go home.’” Singh said.
Bernard Melekian, former director of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, said law enforcement agencies should investigate bias crimes thoroughly regardless of whether they have a bias-crime unit or liaison.
“I don't know that they’re are necessary,” Melekian said. “I think as a matter of routine operation, it's the responsibility of law enforcement to conduct those investigations appropriately and thoroughly.”
Melekian is chairman of the board of the Police Foundation, a Washington, D.C., organization that works to improve policing practices nationwide.
“At some point, we finally as a profession came to realize that community policing wasn't just having a program, it wasn't just having a bike patrol or a storefront operation. It had to be an operating philosophy,” Melekian said. “And I think in some ways the same thing is true for hate crime investigation. It needs to become an operating philosophy for the entire department rather than the responsibility of a handful of specially trained investigators.”
In Sacramento, the police department has specific orders addressing hate and bias crimes, spokesman Eddie Macaulay said.
“It specifically states if the perception of either of the witnesses or the victims in any particular case feel that it's bias-related, the officer shall report it and document it as a bias-related incident,” McCauley said. “If someone feels that they were targeted because of any of the hate related statutes, that's recorded and documented to make sure that it's investigated properly.”
According to a News 21 analysis of federal survey data, fewer than half of the crimes that victims suspected were motivated by hate were reported to the police. Of those, victims said only 4 percent were verified as hate crimes by law enforcement.
When a bias crime is prosecuted, some cases are filed in state courts while others are handled by the FBI and federal prosecutors.
For the Bakers of Bethlehem Township, their case against Kujawa was prosecuted in state court. Under Pennsylvania law, evidence of “malicious intention” against a victim is needed to prove ethnic intimidation. “Malicious intention” is defined as the intention to commit a crime based on hatred of an individual or group’s race, color, religion or national origin.
“Our opinions don't mean much unless that info is there to back it up,” Knouss said.
At first, officers didn’t have enough evidence to conclude that Kujawa was committing a hate crime, he said. That changed when Biafra and Antonio Baker started wearing body cameras.
One video they took shows Kujawa exposing himself while accusing Biafra Baker of harassment. In another video, Kujawa can be heard yelling, “(Expletive) you and your wife!”
The videos were part of the evidence used in court to convict Kujawa of two counts of ethnic intimidation. In May, he was sentenced to two to four years in state prison.
In Singh’s case in Bakersfield, Kern County Assistant District Attorney Scott Spielman supervised prosecutors.
“We saw that the elements were met for a hate crime, and we filed it as a misdemeanor because there wasn't any type of injury involved,” Spielman said. “There was an actual battery because there was contact made, so it wasn't just an assault.”
Spielman’s office filed misdemeanor charges against Hook, the man who threatened Singh, under California’s hate crime statute.
“It's like any other crime,” the prosecutor said. “When it comes in, you take a look first and try to determine what happened. If you need further investigation, you ask for that to be done. Once you determine what happened, then you take a look at the law and figure out what crimes have been committed.”
Hook pleaded no contest and was given three years of probation.
Hate cases also can be investigated and prosecuted at the federal level, although that’s uncommon. Only 100 hate crimes were pursued by federal prosecutors from 47 federal-court districts from January 2010 to July 2018, according to a News21 analysis.
Cynthia Deitle, a former FBI agent who now works for the Matthew Shepard Foundation, said there is no single standard for how the FBI decides which cases to investigate.
“There is no uniform process, so every case in every city and every state is going to be different,” Deitle said.
The FBI might intervene if federal authorities believe justice was not served at the state level, if the crime has national implications or occurs in a state without hate crime laws.
“There are many cases where a hate crime occurred, a state or local police department and the ADA (assistant district attorney) get involved, and they (defendants) plead out to a misdemeanor, and the crime that occurred would have been considered a federal felony punishable by 15 years in federal prison,” Deitle said.
Dietle said every FBI investigation is reviewed and approved by top officials with the Department of Justice.
“It has to go all the way to the attorney general or his designee to approve that charge for that case,” Deitle said. “It can’t just be a local United States attorney or the FBI. They don't have the authority to do that.”
In January 2011, the FBI investigated a case in Spokane, Washington, in which an explosive device was found at a Martin Luther King Jr. Unity March. Almost 2,000 people, including racial minorities, attended the march, according to reports from the Justice Department.
According to an affidavit from FBI Special Agent John T. Slack, the Spokane County Sheriff's Office explosive-disposal unit responded to a report of a backpack containing “suspicious wires” that had been left along the route of the march. In the bag, officers found a functional improvised explosive device, which they disabled before turning it over to a FBI bomb technician for further investigation
An FBI laboratory found DNA belonging to Kevin William Harpham of Colville, Washington, on the backpack, Slack’s affidavit said. Federal investigators also traced parts of the bomb to purchases made by Harpham. A sentencing memorandum from federal prosecutors said Harpham admitted to being a white supremacist and member of the white supremacy organization National Alliance.
In December 2011, a federal judge sentenced Harpham to 32 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction and attempting to use an explosive device to cause bodily injury based on actual or perceived race, color and national origins of his potential victims.
While the Spokane Police Department works with the FBI to investigate explosive devices, O’Brien said it was the FBI’s decision to investigate the case as a hate crime.
Knouss, the Bethlehem Township officer who worked with the Bakers, said the process for proving ethnic intimidation took time.
“Ethnic intimidation is a big charge and a little bit more involved to prove,” Knouss said. “But give someone time and their true colors come out.”
News21 reporters Jimmie Jackson and Lenny Martinez Dominguez contributed to this article.
Connor Murphy is a Donald W. Reynolds Fellow, and Jimmie Jackson is a Hearst Foundation Fellow.
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