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Monday, Jan. 21, 2008 | The number of hate crime offenses reported in San Diego County increased by 23 percent from 2005 to 2006, according to figures from the California Attorney General’s Office, which tallies hate crime statistics in the state.

The statistics, the most recent figures available, also showed that the number of hate crime offenses reported against Hispanics in San Diego County tripled from 2005 to 2006, and that more hate crimes were reported against Hispanics in 2006 than in any of the last five years. In California, the number of hate crimes committed against Hispanics also jumped 16 percent from 2005 to 2006.

The statistics have led some local experts on hate crime to conclude that San Diego crime surge could be tied to an increasingly intense immigration debate raging in the region. The immigration debate, which reignited with a force in early 2006, could have increased both the number of crimes being committed and the awareness of hate crime issues for citizens and law enforcement officers alike.

“When you read some of the terms that are being used by otherwise legitimate spokespeople which categorize undocumented individuals as vermin, the bringers of disease, pedophiles, thieves, it dehumanizes them,” said Morris Casuto, regional director of the San Diego Anti-Defamation League, a nonprofit group that promotes civil rights.

“The increase in hate crimes against Latino and Hispanic community suggests that this type of dehumanization is having an impact on other people that are prepared to take the law into their own hands,” Casuto added.

Hate crimes are distinguishable from other property or violent crimes because they are motivated by bias against a certain social group. Most hate crimes in San Diego are committed on the basis of a victim’s ethnicity or race.

Oscar Garcia, a deputy district attorney with the county’s Special Operations Division, said that to be classified as a hate crime, the act has to be motivated by the bias itself. Hate crimes are offenses that strike fear into a certain segment of the community, he said, and prosecutors can potentially double an offender’s sentence if they can prove hate of a certain group is the nexus for the crime.

Hate crime had been dipping in San Diego County for the early part of the decade. From 2002 to 2004, the total number of hate crimes reported fell almost 50 percent — from 214 to 138 — before staying almost level between 2004 and 2005. In 2006, the number increased to 181, still lower than 2002.

And hate crimes reported against Hispanics had remained fairly level between 2002 and 2004. Offences reported against Hispanics dropped sharply in 2005 before rising to a level far higher than any of the previous four years in 2006.

But because the overall number of hate crimes reported is relatively low, experts pointed out that any trends must be analyzed with caution. Overall, the 23 percent rise in hate crimes reported from 2005 to 2006 represented an increase of 42 crimes in a county with a population of almost 3 million.

Andrew Black, supervisory special agent in charge of the San Diego FBI Civil Rights Program, which aids local law enforcement in fighting hate crime, said the increasingly heated and public debate between anti-illegal immigration groups and immigrant rights activists could be one factor that’s contributed to the crime spike from 2005 to 2006.

But Black said the increase could also partly be due to increased awareness of law enforcement officers to the existence of hate crime legislation. Outreach by local law enforcement agencies and effective training of officers in the use of hate crime laws means crimes that years ago wouldn’t have been classified as hate-driven are now properly identified for what they are.

Timothy Cabal would disagree.

Cabal is currently incarcerated in the George Bailey Detention Facility in Otay Mesa. He recently pleaded guilty to two separate hate crimes that occurred about a year apart. Both involved altercations at bars in East County and both involved Cabal allegedly attacking victims and sending them to the hospital.

One of the victims was black, another, prosecutors argued, was attacked because Cabal thought the victim was gay.

Cabal, who will be sentenced to 17 years in prison, said his case was wrongly classified as a hate crime. Though prosecutors found a money clip at his home that bore an embossed image of a Ku Klux Klan figure and Cabal sports a tattoo of an iron cross, a symbol that is sometimes associated with the neo-Nazi movement, Cabal maintained his innocence during an interview at the jail.

“I’m not a racist. I have black friends. I’m an honest, church-going man and I didn’t mean that to happen to that guy,” Cabal said.

But the Cabal case has been held up by the County District Attorney’s Office as an example of another dangerous trend in hate crimes within San Diego. Extremist white supremacist groups in East County have become increasingly violent in recent years, said Garcia of the District Attorney’s Office.

“California is the center of the neo-Nazi movement in the United States and Southern California is the hotbed of that movement,” Garcia said.

And as the immigration debate continues to boil, the number of hate crimes reported in the county is likely to continue to climb, said Stuart Henry, a professor of criminal justice and director of the School of Public Affairs at San Diego State University.

Whether that increase in reported crimes is because of a true rise in the number of crimes committed or is the result of heightened sensitivity of the latest politically charged issue — in this case immigration — is anyone’s guess, Henry said.

With the immigration debate high on everyone in law enforcement’s radar, there’s a greater likelihood not only that more cases of racial bias arise, but also that more cases are identified as hate crimes, Henry said.

“Are they real hate crimes, or are they just seen as hate crimes because of the ongoing immigration debate?” Henry said. “I think there’s got to be some degree of amplification just because this debate exists.”

Please contact Will Carless directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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