Hate Crimes Czar, Deborah Lauter, Battles Intolerance in NYC

Hate Crimes Czar, Deborah Lauter, Battles Intolerance in NYC

Voice  |  December 9, 2019  |  By Deborah Lauter Executive Director, NYC Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes (OPHC)
“Hate is learned and can be unlearned — particularly at a young age.”

What are hate crimes?

Hate crimes are crimes in which the victims are intentionally selected, in whole or in part, because of their race, color, national origin, ancestry, religion, age, disability, gender or sexual orientation.

Why was your office set up when it was? These crimes have been ongoing.

There has been a disturbing increase of hate crimes in New York and nationally. The New York City Council and Mayor recognized that something more needed to be done than just condemning these crimes after they happen.

How is your mandate different than what you were doing at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), beyond serving different groups?

The OPHC is a city agency and so can engage in policy-making and impact issues on a larger scale, with more long-term impact. There are a number of city agencies that are stakeholders in addressing hate-crimes issues. The OPHC is tasked with coordinating their efforts and looking at the big picture and holistic solutions. At the same time, the City Council allocated over $1 million for a Hate Violence Prevention Initiative, to fund community-based organizations who are working on the ground with populations who are vulnerable to hate crimes, so we’ll be partnering with those and other groups. In addition to working with the Jewish community, I will also be working with other vulnerable groups, such as the Muslim community, African-Americans, Latinos and immigrants who don’t have the same trust relationship with police as the Jewish community has established over the years.

How about the LGBTQ community?

I look forward to working with the LGBTQIA and transgender communities as we know that they are among the most targeted, as well as under-reporting groups. Many in those communities don’t want to be outed; unfortunately, there is still shame involved. The paradox is that if the OPHC does a good job and educates more people on the importance of reporting hate crimes when they occur, then the statistics on the number of crimes in NYC will go up.

Interesting. Then, how do you know if [the numbers] are up because of more crimes or more reporting?

The metrics are going to have to be long-term; how many groups start to provide hate-crime resources to their communities and how many people respond by reporting incidences. We will be working with the Department of Education to look at existing [school] programs and get a handle on what they’ve been doing and what’s needed. There are three parts to our approach: 1. Education 2. Law Enforcement 3. Community Relations

Does Community Relations include faith-based organizations?

Yes, in a number of ways. We are looking at programs in which rabbis and other representatives from religious Jewish communities come to schools to break down stereotypes and fear of the “other.” When I went to the recent annual Crown Heights Festival, sponsored by the Jewish and African- American and Caribbean-American communities, I watched little kids playing soccer — Hasidic boys with payes, and Muslim girls wearing the hijabs, playing together. It was wonderful. It was a one-day event, but can we scale such programs? No one is born hating. Hate is learned and can be unlearned — particularly at a young age.

What are the statistics among groups related to hate crimes?

In New York City, the highest numbers are anti-Jewish crimes: 62%. Of those, over 80% are vandalism, although assaults get the most attention. We are finding that kids don’t know the meaning of a swastika; often it’s mischief or copy-cat activity, but it creates great fear in the community. A lot of kids just don’t realize the consequences.

How do you deal with the divisiveness among Jews themselves?

It’s not an issue of divisiveness as much as a lack of communication between groups. I am hoping I can be helpful in this respect. Because of the recent increase in incidents in the religious Jewish communities in Brooklyn — Flatbush, Williamsburg, Crown Heights — I have been meeting with rabbis and other community leaders there. I am pleased that they are very supportive of the OPHC and want to work closely with us finding solutions.

What are the statistics for hate crimes by group?

Nationally, hate crimes based on race are the most prevalent, followed by religion (with Jews the largest religious group targeted); the third is the LGBTQ community. In NYC, the hate crimes based on religion leads (again, with anti-Jewish crimes predominating), followed by LGBTQIA, and then race-based hate crimes. It is important to remember that hate crimes are under-reported, so these statistics are based on reported crimes.

How do you account for the spike here?

There’s not one reason. We have not seen white supremacist hate-crime activity in NYC. Some have been perpetrated by youth, some by the mentally ill. No one can deny that there has been a coarsening of language in the public space and an increase in the intensity of polarization. Words have consequences, and when leaders engage in stereotypes and demonization of people, it can unfortunately inspire others to act on hate. NYPD Deputy Inspector Mark Molinari (who heads all hate-based investigations on the NYPD) said, “I wish we could say there’s a pattern, but each one is different.”

Is there anything to be hopeful about?

There’s a lot of hope. I am an optimist by nature, and most people are of good will, especially in New York, where government leaders embrace diversity and are very sensitive to protecting vulnerable communities. Can we completely eliminate hate crimes? No. Can we mitigate the numbers and impact and engage more people to be part of the solution? Absolutely.