County to discuss `team' response to hate crimes

Community input seen as vital in curbing incidents

July 03, 2005|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Over the next few weeks, Anne Arundel County officials will look into the sensitive subject of responding to hate crimes, whether and how to have a team work with neighborhoods and victims, and whether to hold community meetings.

The view toward working more closely with communities emerged last week as civil rights leaders expressed a need for greater coordination with residents when hate crimes are suspected.

Sheriff George F. Johnson IV, a former police officer who is running for Anne Arundel county executive, said that putting together response teams is a clear way to focus on certain behavior. A team could include police, prosecutors, community liaisons and, if a warrant is issued, sheriff's deputies, he said.

Ideally, he said, the goal is to shut down this behavior with a concerted response that includes the community saying the behavior is unacceptable.

Black leaders say they suspect that recent incidents may have been spurred by the death last July of Noah Jamahl Jones, a 17-year-old black student, in a Pasadena melee and the acquittal in April of the only one of the six white defendants tried. Manslaughter charges against the other defendants were then dropped.

Some in the community contend that the brawl was racially fueled, but others faulted Jones' friends, saying they started it by wielding a handgun and other weapons.

Among recent incidents have been a cross burning in Ferndale, the vandalism with racial epithets of a car in Hanover, the dumping of racially charged fliers on a lawn in Davidsonville and the alleged beating of a white student by black students at Meade High School. White supremacist literature has been left overnight on lawns in several communities.

As of Tuesday, county police had investigated 29 complaints this year as potential hate crimes.

Over the years, the county and Annapolis have been the scene of high-profile racial incidents. Among them were the 1981 theft of the plaque honoring African slave Kunta Kinte from Annapolis's City Dock and one man's construction in 1996 of a large Klan-style snowman on his front lawn in the city. By 2001, a statue of black legislator Aris T. Allen had been defaced four times in seven years.

While distribution of fliers, even hateful ones, is protected free speech, prosecutors will look into whether criminal charges can be filed against a person suspected of dumping dozens of fliers on a single lawn, said State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee.

In 2001, his office formed a hate crimes prosecution team. But, he said, identifying culprits in vandalism is extremely difficult.

Officials also will contact the YWCA, said Kristin Riggin, spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office. The organization is focused nationally on eliminating racism, she said, and may be a valuable resource or partner in community efforts.

Officials are also considering whether to hold town hall-style meetings at which people could speak with law-enforcement officials about suspected incidents, community safety and related issues.

"We will be discussing with victims of hate crimes whether it would help or exacerbate tensions to go into the neighborhoods and have a forum," said Carl O. Snowden, an aide to County Executive Janet S. Owens and a leader in the black community.

Hate crimes affect not only the victim, but the neighborhoods where they take place and the groups targeted, he said.

"They really do tear at the social fabric of a community; even communities with healthy race relations can be adversely affected if nothing is done," he said.

Joan Turner, whose car was vandalized with racial epithets on Memorial Day -- a neighbor was charged -- said the supportive words from other neighbors were reassuring.

The concern helped in another way: "We will be looking out for each other's property more closely," said Turner, who is black.

She agreed with the idea of the county having a coordinated response in place as well as informational meetings.

"I think there should be [a response], but I just can't figure out what it should be," she said.

"You know, these crimes have a tendency to go away. People forget. I don't want people to forget," she said.

Last week, prosecutors appealed a juvenile court master's acquittal of assault and hate crime allegations in the case stemming from the Meade High School incident and arranged to meet this week with lawyers for the school system over what prosecutors view as a lack of cooperation by school officials.

The principal, Joan Valentine, was criticized by the court master and prosecutors for not identifying two witnesses until ordered to do so by the master. Then one witness denied making a statement. The school forms police rely on were incomplete, Weathersbee said.

Maneka Wade, school system spokeswoman, said school officials are reviewing the matter.

We want your opinions

ISSUE: Members of Anne Arundel County's law enforcement community agreed last week to assemble teams to coordinate responses to hate crimes, in response to a series of recent incidents.

Officials said they are developing details about how the teams would be assembled and the types of incidents to which they would respond.

Authorities said they may convene town meetings. They said they also plan to prosecute those who flood homes with offensive material by charging them with littering. They acknowledge that fliers, even hateful ones, are protected free speech.

YOUR VIEW: Do you think the county has a problem with hate crimes, and are the measures recommended by county leaders an appropriate response? Tell us what you think at by Thursday. Please keep your response short, and include your name, address and phone number. A selection will be published Sunday.

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