WASHINGTON- One police department’s hate crime is another’s simple act of vandalism in Maryland — it all depends on where you live.
While the recent spray painting of “KKK” and racial threats on the wall of a Bowie gym was classified by Prince George’s County Police investigators as a hate crime, spray-painted swastikas in Ocean City or Frederick may or may not be, officers there said.
Most jurisdictions around the state leave it up to the investigating officer to determine what is a hate crime.
Police concede that the interpretation of the state statute covering hate crime statistics varies widely, and that has led to wide variations in hate crime statistics between counties and wild fluctuations from year to year within the same county, according to an analysis of eight years of hate crime statistics.
In Montgomery County, for example, the number of incidents that police verified as hate crimes rose from 51 percent in 1993 to 80 percent the next year, when police changed their definition of hate crime to exclude church burglaries. Police decided that most of the church burglaries they were investigating had nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with computer equipment and other valuables in the churches.
In Frederick County, the verification rate rose from 47 percent to more than 90 percent in the three years beginning in 1993. By 1998, however, it had dropped to back to 7 percent.
Frederick-area police said it had nothing to do with staffing levels or the seriousness with which they treat hate crime.
“In the past, what we had done was verified everything,” said Deborah Whims, manager of information systems and technical services at the Frederick City Police Department. That changed in 1996, when state police clarified the definition for the department and the verification numbers dropped accordingly.
A verified hate crime or bias incident is “motivated, in part or in whole, by the offender’s bias based on race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, or sexual orientation,” according to the state police. Crimes that cannot be verified are listed as “inconclusive” or “unfounded.”
In the city of Frederick, a spray-painted swastika would be listed as “inconclusive,” unless the police department can catch and interview the vandal, said Lt. Bryan Brown, patrol commander.
In Ocean City, spray-painted swastikas may or may not be a hate crime — it depends on the perception of investigating officers such as Lt. Kevin Kirstein.
If a series of swastikas is painted along the boardwalk, and one happens to be on a store owned by a Jew, that’s not a hate crime, said Kirstein, unless the vandals knew the owner was Jewish.
In Montgomery County, which ranks second in the state in total number of hate crimes and bias incidents, the presumption is in favor of classifying an incident as a hate-crime.
Dave Baker, the Montgomery Police hate crimes coordinator, said the victim’s perception is the primary determinant of what constitutes a hate crime or bias incident, according to his interpretation of the statute.
Baker said that in Montgomery County, the offense is reported as a hate crime or bias incident, even if the officer does not believe the victim. It is a practice that protects both the victim and the officer, Baker said.
He said traditional law enforcement mentality is that an officer refuses to say whether a crime is a hate crime “until I actually catch the guy, book him and adjudicate it.”
Baker is unapologetic about his interpretation of the statute. In a diverse community like Montgomery County, he said, the focus on hate crimes is a selling point.
But Brown said Frederick officers’ interpretation is also proper.
“We really feel strongly we are interpreting the statute appropriately and liberally, said Brown. “If we’ve erred on any sides, it’s been on the side of caution.”
Interpretation of the law is not the only problem facing some departments. Investigation of hate crimes and bias incidents at some agencies, like the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office, is hampered by limited staff. The county had a verification rate of 31 percent from 1991 to 1998.
“We don’t have the manpower, really, to go out and further the investigation” of incidents, said Crystal Hayden, senior classification specialist. “If we saw someone do it, that would be a different story.”
The data is further weakened by the fact that reporting to Maryland State Police is voluntary. “As long as (reporting) is voluntary,” Baker said, the variation in numbers will probably continue.
While they conceded that there are problems in identifying and pursuing hate crimes, police said the numbers can still be useful.
Baker said Montgomery County uses the statistics to identify hot spots and direct assistance to areas experiencing racial conflicts.
Brown said that while the numbers are “useful to keep an eye on,” the department focuses more on individual events than accumulated statistics.
“The only thing I think could make them more useful would be more strict definitions,” Brown said.