Crime & Justice

LA County notes sharp spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes in last 2 months of 2015

Graffiti at a Hawthorne, Calif. mosque left Sunday, Dec. 13, 2015.
Graffiti at a Hawthorne, Calif. mosque left Sunday, Dec. 13, 2015.
Hawthorne Police Department

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A county analysis of hate crime reports prepared for KPCC shows a spike in attacks against Muslims, Arab-Americans and people perceived to be Muslim during the last two months of 2015.

In November and December 2014, there was one reported hate crime in the county involving Islamophobia; during the same two months in 2015, there were 11 such hate crimes, according to the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations.

Nine of the 11 reported hate crimes occurred in December. All but one occurred after the San Bernardino mass shooting last Dec. 2, in which the perpetrators were a married couple who identified as Muslim. Shooter Syed Rizwan Farook was a U.S. citizen of Pakistani descent; his wife and accomplice Tashfeen Malik was born in Pakistan.

Commission executive director Robin Toma partly attributed the surge to backlash following the San Bernardino shooting and to the Paris terror attacks in November.

"Based on our experience, we've found that external events, or events that are getting a lot of coverage in the news, that are inflaming emotions...sometimes contribute to the number of hate crimes," Toma said. "We saw that clearly after Sept. 11."

But Toma said recent anti-Islamic political rhetoric, especially in the presidential race, could  also be inciting hate criminals.

"That tends to definitely change the atmosphere," Toma said, "and it sends a signal to some of those people that might be acting out that this is a group that is okay to target."

In one incident on Dec. 19 in Chatsworth, a victim found his motorcycle vandalized, scratched and spray painted with the words “Trump” and “ God Bless America," along with an expletive followed by the word "Arab.”

Most of the incidents tallied by the L.A. County commission were reported by Los Angeles and Long Beach police; four were reported by a community organization but were deemed by the commission to fit the description of a hate crime, Toma said.

The reported hate crimes in December ranged from vandalized mosques to physical attacks. A few examples:

Toma also said that following the San Bernardino shooting, hundreds of threatening phone calls were received by the family of the perpetrators and the family's attorney, with one caller saying there was "a hit" out on them.

There have been other attacks like these throughout Southern California: Just in December, a man pulled a knife on a woman who was wearing a hijab, a traditional head scarf, at a Chino Hills car wash; a mosque was set on fire in Coachella; in Buena Park, a truck parked in the lot of a Sikh temple was vandalized. Sikhs are not Muslim, following a religion that originated in India in the 1500s. But hate criminals often target Sikhs because the men wear turbans.

The Buena Park incident was one of three Orange County incidents targeting Muslims - or people thought to be - that rose to the level of a hate crime in 2015. One of these occurred at the end of the year, after the San Bernardino shooting, said Rusty Kennedy, director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission.

Kennedy and Toma both said there were other incidents targeting Muslims that didn't rise to the level of a hate crime, such as verbal harassment; these are labeled as "hate incidents" by police and counted separately.

Toma and others say it's hard to quantify these types of incidents, which can range from being yelled at in public to discrimination.

Ojaala Ahmad of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said her organization takes reports from the community; the group reported four of the incidents tallied by the county commission. Ahmad said the number of Islamophobia-related incidents reported to CAIR's greater Los Angeles office more than doubled between calendar years 2014 and 2015, from 41 to 97.

Ahmad said if the incident appears serious, they alert police or urge the victims to contact police. But she fears many victims don't report anything.

"There could be a number of reasons for that," Ahmad said. "They either have a fear of law enforcement, or they are not that educated about the system, or they fear that they might be under more scrutiny if they let law enforcement know about it."

Toma said there's not enough data yet for the beginning of 2016 to know if the spike has subsided. But he said collecting this information helps county agencies do a better job of dealing with and responding to hate crimes.

"It tells us where things are happening," Toma said. "It tells us who is behind it, potentially."

Toma cited a past effort that targeted hate crimes committed by gang members, for example. And in December, after reports of Islamophobia-related incidents following the San Bernardino shooting, the county Board of Supervisors voted to do more anti-hate crime public outreach. A related task force aimed at improving community-police relations was set up last month.

"We know that there needs to be that discussion among law enforcement and community," Toma said, "so that everyone can address changes that can help strengthen the reporting of hate crimes."