Prosecuting local hate crimes ‘a top priority,’ DA says

Summer Stephan

SAN DIEGO — In the wake of the deadly clashes last weekend between white nationalists and anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan Friday said prosecuting hate crimes is a top priority for her office and called the white nationalists “thugs, bullies and criminals masquerading behind the freedom of speech.”

Stephan noted in an open letter that the latest statistics from the California Department of Justice “show an 11 percent increase in hate crimes in San Diego County.”

“I wish we could say that the hateful words and murderous actions in Charlottesville are a fluke or aberration,” Stephan wrote. “But we can’t and we shouldn’t view it as if we are at a safe distance in San Diego.”

The most recent statistics from the California Department of Justice show hate crimes across the state dropped overall by 34.7 percent between 2007 and 2016, but were up 11.2 percent from 2015 to 2016.

Hate crimes are motivated by bias, prejudice and hate, Stephan said, and “we will not stand by and allow anyone to suffer abuse because of their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or for any other reason.”

The state statistics showed crimes based on racial bias made up 57 percent of all hate crimes between 2007 and 2016.

“Fighting hate crimes is a priority for me and the District Attorney team, just as they are a priority to our law enforcement partners,” Stephan said. “We have a team of experts who prosecute hate crimes and who understand the impact on victims. Whenever hateful words or motives are combined with criminal actions, this office will prosecute to the fullest extent allowable by the law.”

She ended her statement by saying: “What we saw in Charlottesville is a bunch of thugs, bullies and criminals masquerading behind the freedom of speech.”

The Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally was planned by several white nationalist groups in protest of the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate Army general. During clashes with anti-racist protesters last Saturday, a man attending the white-nationalist rally rammed his car into a group of people, killing a 32-year-old paralegal named Heather Heyer. Ohio resident James Alex Field Jr., 20, has been charged with second- degree murder and other offenses.

Condemnations of the attack by local authorities on both the left and right have been plentiful over the last week, but the language used by Stephan was particularly strong.

Meanwhile, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, has called on the House Judiciary Committee to conduct a hearing to examine the attacks in Charlottesville, recent displays of white nationalism and their impact on civil rights in America.

In a letter sent Thursday to the committee chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, Issa wrote that “we have a duty to more fully understand what led to these terrible events and the persistence of these hateful, extremist ideologies.”

The events last weekend have prompted cities across the country to remove Confederate monuments and statutes — the exact opposite cause of what the white nationalist groups rallied around in Charlottesville — including in San Diego, where city officials on Wednesday removed a plaque from Horton Plaza that referenced Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederacy.