A brick thrown through a window, a threatening symbol painted on a door, a toppled gravestone, a torched church, an assault, a murder. All are hateful acts, but if race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity is the motive, they could also be hate crimes.
Not many are reported - the FBI counted 9,759 last year, well behind the 1.6 million violent crimes reported nationwide. Some may not look serious to a harried cop on the beat.
But the difference between a hate crime and a simple assault is the impact it can have on communities. Even the suggestion of a hate crime can set off riots in a city neighborhood or put an edge to race relations on a college campus for months.
This month, at the first White House Conference on Hate Crimes, the Clinton administration announced new measures to curb such violence. These include assigning 50 new FBI agents and prosecutors to beef up enforcement, and increasing fines for offenders to provide more compensation to victims of hate violence in federal housing.
These crimes "strike at the heart of what it means to be an American," President Clinton told the conference. "They are the antithesis of the values that define us as a nation. "
Meanwhile, Congress is considering proposals that would expand the definition of hate crimes to include gender and disability and strengthen reporting, and police forces at the local level are taking steps to improve the documenting and handling of such crimes.
Los Angeles County took an early lead in reporting and investigating hate crimes, in part as a response to the rioting that broke out in the city after the announcement of the Rodney King verdict in April 1992. L.A. now uses its hate-crime data to build a "stress map" to help anticipate future problems.
"We found that a rash of hate-crime events can lead to escalating retaliation. Now when we get an elevated experience, we can collapse resources around it very quickly," says Ronald Wakabayashi, executive director of the L.A. Commission on Human Relations.
In such cases, for example, parole officers make quick contact with their case load to pass on the message: "If you get involved with hate crime, you will be in parole violation in a hurry." Police officers are also dispatched to schools to talk with students. "Young men are the highest-risk population to get involved in a hate crime," says Mr. Wakabayashi.
L.A. county had 995 reported hate crimes last year and has assigned a high-ranking officer at division and station levels to coordinate reporting of hate crimes. "We have a better reporting system than any other city, but it's made us known as the hate-crime capital of the world," he adds.
"As soon as you raise the profile of the hate crimes issue, you immediately see a significant increase in the numbers of hate crimes reported," says US Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder.
But law enforcement officials say that overall, much of the data on hate crimes is unreliable, because so many are still unreported. Of those reported last year, race was a factor in 63 percent, followed by religion (13.9 percent), sexual orientation (12 percent), and ethnic origin (11 percent), according to the Justice Department.
Until recently, such crimes might have been written off as "pranks" or classified simply as assault or battery in most states.
A 1990 law now requires the Department of Justice to collect data on hate crimes. In 1994, federal lawmakers increased the penalties for crimes where the victim was selected because of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation. All but nine states now have their own hate-crime laws.
For example, burning a buggy didn't used to be a 25-year offense. If convicted under Wisconsin's hate-crime law, four men charged this month with torching an Amish man's horse-drawn buggy face an additional five years in prison because they allegedly chose their victim on account of his religion.
"These are such destructive crimes. They tear at a person's heart, and if there is a group aspect, it's even deeper," says Michael McQuillan, a community activist and adviser on racial and ethnic affairs in the office of the Brooklyn Borough president.
New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli (D) has introduced legislation that would require college campuses to report all hate crimes, including harassment, vandalism, and assault. Colleges now only report hate crimes that result in murder, rape, or aggravated assault.
More work to be done
Despite L.A.'s inroads, for many other police departments the new emphasis on hate crimes will take some ramping up. "First, police had to change the way they dealt with race relations; then it was gender relations - police didn't deal with domestic violence until the late 1960s. Now it's hate crimes, but we'll get there. It just takes time," says Fulton County (Atlanta) Sheriff Jacquelyn Barrett.
"As a black woman Southern sheriff, I'm proof that things can change. We have to get the community to trust us. Too many in the community still don't think we're going to do anything about hate crime," she adds.
Activist groups are also mobilizing to alert their communities about the need to report hate crimes and use the protection of the law. But there are great differences in the national and local presence of groups on this issue.
For example, the Anti-Defamation League has been keeping its own records of anti-Semitic incidents since 1979 and now sponsors national programming and training on hate crimes. Gay and lesbian activists are also generating their own hate-crime reports and programs. And abortion-rights activists are lobbying to add the category of "gender" to the definition of a hate crime.
But for other groups, such as the Amish and some Latino and Asian communities, the issue has generated much less activity. "Many immigrants grew up in a homogeneous community," says Wakabayashi. "The math of the situation doesn't give you much experience with hate crime. The need for law enforcement is to send a strong, organized message to such groups that hate crimes are not acceptable behavior in the United States."