Lt. William Johnston calls it the "Same" Theory, and he applies it when investigating hate incidents for the Boston Police Department.
The lieutenant asks himself: "Could this have happened if everyone involved was the same?" If everyone were black or white, or Christians or Jews, or gay or straight, would the incident have occurred?
If the answer is yes, the commander of Boston's Community Disorders Unit suggested yesterday, a police officer probably shouldn't regard the event as a hate incident.
More than 250 Maryland officers gathered at Goucher College yesterday to hear experts discuss two hot law enforcement topics -- hate crimes and "community policing."
"I walk Hate Street, that's my beat, a 'netherland' where nobody is a hater but everybody knows one," Lieutenant Johnston said. He told the officers that, in the wake of the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles, responding professionally to hate incidents could save a police officer's career.
Police officers need to realize that a rock through the window of a black family's home in a predominantly white neighborhood is more than a broken window, and that a swastika spray-painted on a synagogue is not simply an act of vandalism, he said. Both are hate crimes that often scar people for life.
"All I ask of you as police officers is that you get out of the car and take the report," the Boston commander said. "We put values on crimes. But what value do you put on somebody's dignity? You kill them with weapons, but you can also kill them with words."
Nearly 1,200 hate incidents were reported in Maryland last year, 643 of which were verified by investigators, according to state police.
That represents a slight decrease from 1990. Of those, only 104 arrests were made, for assault, arson, cross-burning, vandalism and threats.
Two-thirds of the incidents were racial in nature, about one-fourth were religious, and the rest involved attacks on a victim's ethnic background or sexual orientation.
Baltimore and Montgomery counties, where police track hate crimes closely, accounted for more than half the reported incidents, in part because of those counties' changing ethnic makeups, said Capt. John P. Cook of the Maryland State Police.
In addition to spotting hate crimes in the community, police officers must guard against bigotry in their own ranks, Lieutenant Johnston said.
Applying the "Same" Theory to the King beating, the Boston commander concluded that it was a hate crime. "No one can convince me they would have treated a white man that way," he said.
Another police officer speaking yesterday addressed ways police might help ease racial strife.
Inspector Edward McLaughlin of the Philadelphia Police Department touted "community policing" as one way to be sensitive to hate crimes and to rebuild trust.
Inspector McLaughlin, a candidate to be Philadelphia's next police commissioner, defined "community policing" as making officers accountable to their neighborhood "customers."