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Attacks against individuals or groups simply because of their race, gender, sexual orientation or religion - we take a look at hate crimes in San Diego county.

March 27, 2012 1:06 p.m.


Oscar Garcia, Deputy District Attorney, San Diego District Attorney's Hate Crimes Unit

Edgar Hopida, The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a nonprofit grassroots civil rights and advocacy group.

Related Story: Combating Hate In San Diego


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

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CAVANAUGH: Our top story on Midday Edition, the beating death of Shaima Alawady in her El Cajon last week has raised many questions for San Diegans. Shaima's daughter says she found a note near the scene which called her mother a terrorist. The FBI is assisting El Cajon police who are leading the investigation. Yesterday; police said a hate crime is being considered as a possible motive for the attack. Although they say evidence points in other directions as well. Mrs. Alawady's death coming so close to the furor of the shooting death of unarmed teenager of Trayvon Martin in Florida has once again put the spotlight on hate crimes. We thought we'd bring you a status report about how San Diego deals with hate crimes. My guests are Oscar Garcia, deputy district attorney with San Diego district attorney's hate crimes unit. Welcome to the show.

GARCIA: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And Edgar Hopida, with the San Diego chapter of the council on American Islamic relations, also known as care. And thank you for coming in.

HOPIDA: Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Edgar, as we mentioned, the police say a hate crime is just one of the possibilities be investigated in the death of Shaima Alawady. Can you tell us what you're hearing from the local Muslim community?

HOPIDA: Unfortunately because of the gravity of the crime, and the tragedy of the mother being killed, a lot of Muslims in the community are quickly pointing to hate crimes. Our organization is trying to calm the waters and say, look, we need to let the El Cajon police department do their job and investigate. And we'll be sure if it's a hate crime or not.

CAVANAUGH: Is it the reports of a note that have the community making that assumption, or have there been other incidents of animosity toward Iraqis in the area?

HOPIDA: Well, the note where the police -- the El Cajon police chief mentioned in his press conference, he didn't make any indication of what the note said. There has been early reports where a family member said that it said something like go back to where you came from, you terrorist. But it's not confirmed by the police department. It's just speculation at this point.

CAVANAUGH: So therefore the idea that it is a hate crime may indeed be fueled by the fact of other incidents?

HOPIDA: Well, I'd be careful not to call it a hate crime until the investigation is complete

CAVANAUGH: Sure, yeah.

HOPIDA: But at the same time, there has been an increase nationally about, you know, anti-Muslim sentiment and rhetoric leading to hate crimes.

CAVANAUGH: In the community of El Cajon?

HOPIDA: No, not in El Cajon. Nationally. There hasn't been really that -- that's why we are in such a shock because this hasn't happened to our community in such a long time. This is actually the first major hate crime that we have had within the Muslim community.

CAVANAUGH: If indeed a hate crime

HOPIDA: Yeah, if it is.

CAVANAUGH: Because correct me if I'm wrong, San Diego has the second largest population of Iraqis than any other place in the United States, is that right?

HOPIDA: Yeah, that's correct.

CAVANAUGH: And this family just recently moved to San Diego.

HOPIDA: Yes. And El Cajon has been very conducive with, you know -- they're thriving there, they have stores, halal butcher, etc. So it's not like the community itself -- it didn't seem like there was a, you know, a violent trend going on. So I think we have to be very careful not to label it as such.

CAVANAUGH: Let me bring in Oscar Garcia. I know you're not going to be addressing this particular incident of this death in El Cajon. But in general, how is your department involved once there is a suspected hate crime in the community?

GARCIA: Well, we make it clear to the -- all the local police departments that we are at the ready 24/7 to provide support early on in the investigation. We welcome the police departments to contact my office immediately upon -- especially such a horrendous crime such as this, where there's even a suspicion of a hate crime. And once that occurs, we provide support, we're there to review the search warrants for accuracy, to assist in any way to provide our support. And when they do identify a suspect, if it is deemed to be evidence of a hate crime, then we're that much more on board and are able to more quickly start the criminal proceedings with charges against the suspects.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Oscar Garcia, can you give us a reminder of the kinds of hate crimes that we have seen here in the San Diego area? What are some of the ones that stick out in your own mind?

GARCIA: Well, when I began working in this particular specialty, about 5.5 years ago, my very first day, starting that Monday morning was the day after the weekend with the Balboa Park hate crime attacks upon victims targeted because they were suspected to be gay. And that was after the gay pride festival. And that was also a horrendous case where there was an attempted murder upon multiple victim, some very severely beaten with a baseball bat and a knife

CAVANAUGH: And what year was that? Do you recall?

GARCIA: That was about 5.5 years ago.


>> And the police department did an excellent job, SDPD, to acknowledge it was a very serious crime, even aside from the fact that it appeared to be bias-motivated. They formed a mini-task force, and made arrests within 48 hours of all three suspects, for accessory after the fact. And we had successful prosecution in about two or three months. We had guilty pleas on every one.

CAVANAUGH: And another notorious incident happened at Chollas Lake?

GARCIA: There's a wide range of cases that I prosecuted, from women walking around the lake speaking Spanish, and somebody took offense to that and started throwing large stones at a grandmother, a mother and a child, to taking out a shotgun and shooting in the direction of a group of bicyclists because they were speaking Spanish. We did have 1 case where we did have a Muslim victim, a taxicab driver who was saying his prayers, about a year and a half ago. And we prosecuted that as a hate crime as well.

CAVANAUGH: And most of the attacks in San Diego that are hate crime-motivated are against Latinos; isn't that correct?

GARCIA: You know, there's a wide range of victims. Statistically, it's consistent with the -- on the federal side, the nation, as well as the California statistics where there has been a higher incidence, spike in California in 2010 compared to 2009, about 47% increase in Latinos, Hispanics being targeted. My cases run the gamut from based on religion, ethnicity, from African American to Hispanic to Caucasian victims as well.

CAVANAUGH: And most of the crimes, the incidents that are -- were reported in that California attorney general's report issued last summer that did note that spike in San Diego County, is it true that most of them are sort of things like graffiti and name-calling and incidents of that nature?

GARCIA: Well, name-call we go don't classify as a hate crime. We refer to those as hate incidents. We still want those reports because oftentimes those persons who are doing those things, they may turn into a suspect down the road, and the police will then be ready to go look at them as possible suspects in trying to make identifications. But yeah, a lot of the cases brought to me involve physical beatings, attacks, sometimes weapons used. And yes, there's a lot of vandalism as well that occurs, especially among the younger offender, the juvenile offenders.

CAVANAUGH: Is there any area of the county more prone to hate crimes than others?

GARCIA: I know when I came on board, it seemed as though east county was getting a bad reputation. But frankly, I've had hate crimes throughout the county from down to Imperial Beach, south bay, national city, up in North County, it is throughout the county. Not just focused on east county. It's just that east county has had some notorious hate crimes in the past. We had a young marine who was paralyzed out there at a party, jumped by some white supremacists. But we have offenders of different races and colors just as we do have victims.

CAVANAUGH: Edgar, how does your group work with communities where hate crimes have been suspected?

HOPIDA: We have a partnership with Oscar, actually. I'm actually a member of the San Diego regional hate crimes coalition. So we always community with law enforcement, with the District Attorney's Office, we have built partnerships with interfaith and other civil rights organizations just to keep abreast on what's going on with regards to our county. So that's why I think we have a good partnership in getting this out.

CAVANAUGH: What are some of the challenges for actually prosecuting a hate crime?

GARCIA: Oh, is that -- one of the main challenges in the State of California, hate crimes is the only crime in which the prosecutor is required to prove the motivation for the offense. And every other crime from a petty theft to a murder case, the jury is told the prosecutor need not prove the motivation. Of course it would be some relevance if there is evidence of motivation. So as a result we have to determine whether or not we have enough evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to prove the substantial motivation for the offense was this biased prejudice based upon race, nationality, religion, sexual orientation. So it does make it challenging in trying to delve into the mind of the perpetrator.

CAVANAUGH: How do you do that?

GARCIA: Let's why we go out to the police departments, conduct trainings there regularly, we teach at the police academy, I along with a specialist from the sheriff's department, as well as an anti-defamation league, we teach a 4-hour hate crime class to make them cognizant of the fact that they can do search warrants on homes or look at their computers or phones. We need to prove the motivation, and how better than to see what types of websites they were visiting, what they downloaded? Sometimes they have treasure troves of information by going out to the residences to search for those types of things to show what their motivation is. And sometimes we're fortunate enough that the attackers may put tattoos on their body, a swastika on their chest or they say the slurs. Sometimes they're smart enough not to say the slurs during the attack.

CAVANAUGH: Oscar, there are many people who disagree with statutes saying someone should be punished for their thoughts instead of for their actions. How do you respond to that?

GARCIA: I do regularly come across some folks in the legal area as well as at the community forums, and my response to that is what I researched early on after that Balboa Park case, and during that investigation, and talking to experts and researching. That these cases are very different in that there really is not just one victim. It does really affect the entire community. Entire communities are being targeted by the perpetrators to cause fear and distrust among different races. And studies have shown that victims of hate crimes are -- take more than twice as long to recover emotionally, psychologically from the trauma. And why that is is because it is something about their very innate characteristic, be it their skin color, religion, sexual orientation, that you wouldn't expect -- or they can't change about themselves to make themselves les at risk. Oftentimes the victims of hate crimes aren't doing anything that you would characterize as risky behavior. For example, someone getting robbed at an ATM late at night and not doing something carefully. Victims can thereby think they can be targeted again, and when they share that with their communities and family members, they think but for the grace of God, that could be my family being targeted.

CAVANAUGH: Not living on the edge but just going for a walk in the park.

>> Exactly.

CAVANAUGH: Edgar, you have been the target of a hate crime; is that correct?

HOPIDA: No, actually my wife was a victim of a hate-motivated incident. The reporter misquoted me unfortunately.


HOPIDA: She was at Horton plaza mall, and she was asked to go back to where she came from. She's Filipino American, like myself, but a Canadian citizen. So actually -- the person said go back to Iraq. You know? So that kind of baffled me because she looks so Asian, she doesn't look Arab at all want

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Even so, it's disturbing though

HOPIDA: It is very disturbing. Ip was very upset after that, and actually got security to look for the people. But it's not a hate crime. It's more like a hate-motivated incident.

CAVANAUGH: Is that the kind of thing that you would have expected -- is that the level of incident that you would have expected perhaps happening in a community like El Cajon as opposed to this beating death of a woman? In other words, based on the history of what San Diego hate crimes are like?

HOPIDA: Well, again, we haven't had a lot of anti-Muslim hate crimes. And Oscar, correct me if I'm wrong, but we never had such a magnitude of a crime happen in El Cajon. So we're under siege. And we feel like we're under siege because of that.

CAVANAUGH: If people do feel as if they have been the targets of an incident, any kind of an incident, whether a physical incident or some sort of a name-calling incident, you've mentioned that some Muslim women feel threatened on the work place because they're not allowed to wear their scarves or there's comment about them wearing their scarves. What would you suggest that they do?

HOPIDA: Well, we live in a country where we can, you know, express ourselves religiously, and there's a lot of federal laws to protect Muslims from -- in practicing their religion in the work place. So I say be the way you are. You're a Muslim woman, if you wear a head scarf, you should have no problem getting employment or keeping a job because it's part of the law. They can't fire you based on your religious practices.

CAVANAUGH: And if there is such an incident like that, I know it's not technically a crime, but Oscar, if your office got a phone call like that, what would you do? Where would you refer them?

GARCIA: Well, as Edgar stated on the federal side, there are many protections. So we do have specialists in our office, and witness advocates that can refer them to the appropriate agency. If it doesn't rise to the level of an actual crime. And we do get many of those calls from folks who it may fall more on the civil side, or other agencies can better assist them

CAVANAUGH: On the whole, how do you think San Diego is doing on prevention of hate crimes and dealing with hate crimes?

GARCIA: I think we always need to be vigilant. We had several years the last few years were statistically at least hate crimes were on the decrease of about 10% since 2006 where there was also a sharp spike at 30%. Unfortunately, in 2010, we had another sharp spark in San Diego County, and hate crimes shot up about 30% again. Statistics can only go so far. Some can criticize and say maybe we're just better reporting them because we have better training with the police people, and they're more apt to report the hate crimes. Here in San Diego, the police departments are committed, they sign you have on a protocol to be active with our organization, regional hate crimes coalition. We have regular meetings with the community leaders as well. When something as hoar end as what happened in El Cajon occurs, we're at the ready to denounce as a communities as a whole to send a counter message of domestic terrorism, that we will not tolerate this type of horrendous behavior, and we're going to prosecute these cases to the maximum possible.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know that there is a memorial planned tonight for Shaima Alawade and if will take place, it's a public memorial at the Islamic center in lake side from 4:00-7:00 tonight. Thank you both very much.

HOPIDA: Thank you.

GARCIA: Thank you.