Thursday evening, January 5, was the first of a series of Zoom lectures on hate crimes hosted by the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills. Rabbi Stuart Verstandig, president of the shul, welcomed everyone to the program. He shared that the idea for this Thursday evening program was initiated by Rabbi Emeritus Yoel Schonfeld, who is now the president of the Coalition for Jewish Values. Rabbi Verstandig introduced the featured speaker, Assistant District Attorney Michael Brovner, Chief of the District Attorney’s Hate Crimes Bureau.
ADA Brovner shared that, since last month, hate crimes are up 22% since 2021. Also, reported incidents of anti-Semitism increased 53%.
The good news is that reported anti-Semitism crimes went down in Queens.
He then went on to explain the legal definition of a hate crime and the impact it has. Hate crimes are not random acts of violence. The victim is harmed because of his race or ethnicity or religion. These types of crimes have a massive impact on the victim. There is significant psychological trauma. A person can become depressed and feel unsafe. Also, these types of crimes impact more than just the individual victim. They impact the victim’s community and it has a ripple effect on the entire society. “We don’t want to live in a society where people are attacked because of who they are!”
Hate crimes can lead to more hate crimes and violence in copycat crimes and revenge violence. We want to break the cycle of violence. Hate crimes are unique in that they garner greater public attention even when there is no physical or monetary damage involved. These types of crimes spark the victim’s community, advocacy groups, and the media. Unlike random violence, the law is required to seek a motive in whole or substantial part that can be proven.
“With hate crimes you have to prove a motive.” He then quoted the statute PL [Penal Law] 485.05, which states that the accused intentionally selected the person or intentionally commits an act or acts in whole or substantive part because of belief or perception. If a hate crime is committed against someone assumed to be a certain religion or race and it turns out that the person isn’t of that race or religion, the perpetrator is still culpable for committing a hate crime.
Categories for a hate crime include the following: race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religious practice, religious practices, disability, sexual orientation, and age. Basically, he said that hate crimes apply to everyone. The statute doesn’t discriminate. Proof of a defendant’s or victim’s class is not the way to establish crime. He explained that certain crimes like assault, kidnaping, larceny, robbery, sex crimes, and stalking can fall under hate crimes, while gang assault, lewdness, and weapons possession do not.
If a hate crime is proven, then this elevates the sentence for the perpetrator. He noted that hate crime victims can be difficult witnesses. The prosecutors represent the government, and a person may have had negative experience with the government and fear deportation. Also, it is an emotionally difficult crime, and it is difficult to testify when there is more media attention, and coming out in public may require more personal attention. The media sensationalizes it. Hate crimes go beyond the victim. Also, advocacy groups represent other victims. Often there is strong interest to exert political pressure. Additional interests claim hate crime, and this can influence the witness.
Mr. Bovner shared that his office does community outreach to prevent hate crime, and his office makes sure that there is dialogue and that they know the concerns of groups in the community. Advocacy groups can be resources, and it is important to develop trust and relationships and to understand concerns. “We focus on establishing a specialized bureau only dealing with hate crimes, and it is one of the few in the country.” He added that hate crimes are unique. His bureau is a 24/7 operation. They are cognizant of the danger of charging when it’s not a hate crime. He added that sensitivity training can be better than jail. It is useful to have a bureau for all of these cases.
To determine if a crime is in fact a hate crime, the bureau speaks with officers, victims, and eyewitnesses, and the bureau reviews videos and the defendant’s rap sheet. They need to determine if the crime was committed in whole or substantial part. Again, he emphasized that with hate crimes you have to prove intent. Words and epithets used during the crime don’t always mean it is a hate crime.
They look at the membership of the accused in racist organizations and prior bad acts. They look at the location, like houses of worship, gay pride parade or bar, or a cemetery.
Hate crimes are usually of an extreme measure. “They are called hate crimes for a reason,” he said. The person committing the crime views his victim as less than human. Confessions and statements are the most powerful evidence, and also the defendant’s explanatory motive. He pointed out that 50% of those who commit hate crimes are emotionally disturbed.
He showed actual video clips of hate crimes. It was difficult to watch. He concluded that people should make sure to report a crime and they shouldn’t worry about negative repercussions like being deported. “We take cases seriously.”
The lecture was followed with a lively Q&A session.
The Hate Crimes Bureau can be reached by email at mebrovnerqueensda.org or by phone at 718-286-7008.
By Susie Garber