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911 dispatchers could be key in prosecuting more hate crimes

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Cristina Kim
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KPBS
Deputy District Attorney Abigail Dillon leads a hate crime training for 911 dispatchers in San Diego, Calif. March 22, 2022.

On an early Tuesday morning in March, over a dozen 911 dispatchers from across San Diego County are checking into the Sheriff’s Department for a special training on hate crimes.

The goal is to teach dispatchers to gather key evidence that prosecutors can then use to charge people with hate crimes, said Deputy District Attorney Abigail Dillon, the lead hate crime prosecutor who runs these training sessions several times a year.

“The details that a dispatcher is able to get from someone who is on scene witnessing it as it happened or (from) the victim of the crime itself or even the suspect,” Dillon said. “I can't emphasize enough how important that information gathering can be and how critical that evidence can be.”

The trainings have taken on new significance in light of the region’s rise in hate. In the city of San Diego, hate crimes increased by 77% in 2021 from the previous year, according to the police department.

The District Attorney’s office received around 300 reports of hate incidents in 2021, but only prosecuted 30 hate crimes cases. Hate crimes are crimes committed in whole or in part because of a biased against someone’s perceived characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, nationality, religion or sexual orientation.

That tight definition makes hate crimes difficult to prosecute, Dillon said. Especially when there’s not enough evidence.

“It requires us to prove that the perpetrator’s act was motivated in whole or in part because of a bias,” she explained.

And that's exactly why these training sessions are so important, because the questions 911 dispatchers ask can be pivotal in proving bias.

“We want dispatchers to be aware of the difficulties of what we have to prove for purposes of hate crimes, what's required, so that that's in the back of their mind as they're asking for additional details from witnesses or victims or suspects who call 911,” she said.

Throughout the trainings, participants listen to recorded 911 calls from incidents like a 2006 attack during San Diego Pride and the 2019 Poway Synagogue shooting. Those calls show the kinds of questions dispatchers can ask in the moment, such as whether attackers are saying slurs, whether anyone was displaying known hate symbols, or even get details from suspects.

The training is one part of the dispatcher’s Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), a standardized training for police officers and emergency dispatchers. While California police officers are mandated to take hate crime training, 911 dispatchers are not, according to Meagan Poulos, the legislative liaison for the Commission on POST.

San Diego County, however, has been offering these training sessions for dispatchers since the 1990s.

Christina Newton is a first year 911 dispatcher for the San Diego Sheriff’s Department. After going through the training, she’s thinking about her job differently.

“I'll be asking a lot more follow up questions, a lot more clarifying questions, just trying to determine if there are other types of crimes within some of our more standard calls,” she said.

It’s also made her realize her role in making sure hate crimes are actually prosecuted.

“It's this kind of crime that you think people don't get charged for or, you know, victims don't get justice in a way, so it was nice to hear that there are ways to do that,” she said.

Dillon said prosecuting more hate crimes is an integral part of how the region must address growing hate.

“I think that by prosecuting hate crimes, we in turn are sending a message that this is not acceptable,” she said. “That hatred is something that needs to be eradicated.”