Organization forms against hate crimes

Coalition of officials, residents to combat recent problems

August 17, 2005|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

A group of Anne Arundel County officials, community groups and residents distraught about recent hate crimes and the distribution of white supremacist leaflets created a race relations umbrella organization this week to coordinate how to deal with the sensitive subject.

The Race Relations Coordinating Council will start by putting together a rapid-response plan for teams to work with victims of hate crimes and communities where fliers have been distributed. It also will begin planning for town hall-style meetings in the fall.

"When there is unity and community in society, there is the way in which to achieve progress, so we are going to be unified," said Milton Harrod, a retired firefighter and outgoing officer of the Arundel-on-the-Bay community, a neighborhood outside Annapolis where bundled white supremacist leaflets landed overnight on hundreds of lawns last week.

Residents responded by meeting on the beach to say that their values were not reflected in the racist fliers. "Hopefully, we can keep them at bay and convince them they are not welcome here," Harrod said.

Heightened concerns in recent months have led Anne Arundel officials, civil rights leaders and community groups to discuss ways to combat and respond to drops of anti-black, anti-Jew and anti-Hispanic literature and such racial incidents as a cross-burning on a lawn and racial epithets in vandalism. The meeting Monday in Annapolis was the second session, and officials said they expect a third meeting in the fall.

The rapid-response approach to reported incidents is a style taken from how police deal with certain crimes. It includes a responding officer alerting a supervisor to a type of crime, which kicks off a message to other officials.

"The same concept can be used on our situation," Anne Arundel County Sheriff George F. Johnson IV told about 60 people this week.

With a suspected hate crime, a rapid approach might consist of quick help to a victim, information on organizations that provide services and a prompt visit from a liaison to discuss how the community might respond, he said.

The idea received a nod from Steven Hess, a law enforcement coordinator with the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore. He said the more neighborhoods pull together, the better.

"It lessens the anxiety in a community. It lessens the trauma," he said.

Some in the group said a few arrests and prosecutions might let perpetrators know that they are not welcome. But the hate crimes have typically occurred overnight when they are unseen. And authorities have stressed that the distribution of fliers generally is protected free speech, unless it involves trespassing or some other violation.

Officials were looking at whether charges could be filed in cases when, say, dozens of fliers are dumped on a single lawn.

Town hall meetings around the county are likely to start in October, said Carl O. Snowden, an aide to County Executive Janet S. Owens and a leader in the African-American community. Aimed at prevention, they will focus on explaining what a hate crime is, how to report it, and how to help victims and their neighbors deal with what may be a terrifying situation.

"The focus initially will be in areas impacted by hate crimes. That is where people will have the greatest concerns," he said.

Overall, the organization is likely to be similar to the county's coordinating councils for domestic violence issues and for criminal justice matters.

The domestic violence council is credited with weaving various programs into a network that informs and helps victims of domestic violence. The criminal justice organization brings together the agencies involved in crime control and courts, noted State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee, and played a crucial role in instituting drug courts in the county.

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