Seattle Police are trying new approaches to track hate crimes

Aaron Amundsen, co-owner of Emerald City Tattoo and Supply in Lake City, received a hateful and threatening note soon after the November election. (Photo by Alex Bruell)
Aaron Amundsen, co-owner of Emerald City Tattoo and Supply in Lake City, received a hateful and threatening note soon after the November election. (Photo by Alex Bruell)

The shooting of a Sikh man in Kent last Friday rekindled concerns over local hate crimes. Meanwhile the SPD is trying to make reporting hate and bias incidents easier in the wake of a national increase in hate crimes since the November election.

Past years have seen more than 250,000 incidents against Americans over the age of 12 nationwide, according to research by the federal government. But this data is widely understood to be flawed by a lack of reporting. The same study highlights a decline in reports to police from 46% to 35% from 2003 to 2011.

Officer Jim Ritter, the Seattle Police LGBTQ Liaison Officer, says that there are many reasons people don’t report hate crimes and incidents when they happen. Ritter, who is gay, said that it took him 12 years before he felt comfortable coming out to his department.

“Every minute you delay calling 911, our officers have less chance of catching these folks.”

“One reason people don’t report is because they’re not out,” Ritter said at a Community Awareness Forum in January at the Lake City Community Center. “If they put something in a police report, that outs them.”

“But we need to get this information immediately,” Ritter continued. “Every minute you delay calling 911, our officers have less chance of catching these folks.”

“If something happens, call 911”

In November Aaron Amundsen, co-owner of Emerald City Tattoo and Supply in Lake City, was the target of a hateful note filled with anti-gay slurs. Amundsen’s business partner Tony Johns found the note on Amundsen’s windshield one morning a week after November’s national election.

The note, which read in part “We won, so you better watch you’re [sic] back. You’re [sic] days are numberd [sic]. Make America STRAIGHT again to make it GREAT again,” came as a shock to Amundsen.

“It was like getting kicked in the stomach,” Amundsen said. “I never thought I’d be a victim of this sort of thing.”

Amundsen didn’t initially report the event to police, not wanting to give the perpetrator any more attention.

“I thought, if I sweep it under the rug and make it go away, it’ll be fine,” he said at the Community Awareness Forum.

Several days after receiving the note, Amundsen got a call from Ritter, asking him who in the SPD he talked to.

“He told me, ‘I don’t want to tell you what to do, but this incident is bigger than you,’” Amundsen said.

At the forum, Ritter said that the goal of these crimes is often to make people feel too embarrassed and isolated to contact police.

“People who commit these crimes are hoping that no one is paying attention,” Ritter told the forum. “People say, ‘I wasn’t sure my incident was an emergency.’ If something happens, call 911.”

On March 1, the Seattle Office for Civil Rights (SOCR) unveiled another way to report discriminatory incidents: a hotline where those who have suffered discriminatory harassment can report their experience.

In a press release, SOCR said that they were coordinating with the Seattle Police Department’s efforts. The hotline, which is at 206-233-7100, is intended for those who experience discriminatory harassment in public areas like housing or employment, or in other ways that do not necessarily constitute a criminal act.

The press release said that SOCR can investigate and issue findings on allegations it receives, but encouraged those experiencing bias-related crimes and malicious harassment to contact Seattle Police.

New tracking tactics

On February 3, the SPD launched its new Bias/Hate Crime Data Dashboard, a tool to collect and report data on three types of incidents; “malicious harassment,” which covers crimes specifically motivated by hate for a person’s identity, “crimes with bias elements,” which covers crimes that are not necessarily motivated by hate but include biased comments, and “non-criminal bias incidents,” which covers offensive and derogatory language that does not constitute a crime, but still offends, harasses, or intimidates a person or community.

Ritter hopes that the availability of this information will help encourage Seattle citizens to report incidents, even when they’re not sure a crime has been committed.

“Documenting hate crimes is different all over country,” Ritter said. “There’s no continuity. When the FBI collects stats across the nation, they’ll often get a zero in the hate crime column from cities that don’t collect that info. Or, for instance, if cities don’t divide “assault” into “assault” and “hate assault,” it [assault motivated by hate] won’t show up. It’s really challenging when people aren’t collecting the information.”

A screenshot from the Bias/Hate Crime Data Dashboard shows a sharp increase in malicious harassment incidents since 2013
A screenshot from the Bias/Hate Crime Data Dashboard shows a sharp increase in malicious harassment incidents since 2013

The new Data Dashboard shows a steady increase in bias incidents each year since 2012, the first year that the data is available. 113 incidents occurred in that year, compared with 256 in 2016. In that time period, Malicious Harassment crimes have nearly tripled, rising from 31 incidents to 89.

Ritter says that while there has likely been a slight increase in hate crimes since the election, the statistical rise of hate crimes seen in the Bias/Hate Crime Dashboard probably reflects better reporting more than an actual increase in crime.

“We do a far better job reporting these crimes,” Ritter said. “We don’t actually have three times as many assaults going on as other cities, we just do a better job reporting them. In comparison to other major cities, Seattle is about as good as it gets in letting people know to report this.”

“I don’t feel like a victim anymore”

After working with Ritter to report the story, Amundsen feared retaliation for speaking out. But in the days since the story broke, he’s instead been surprised by the support the community has given him.

“I thought there would be a brick through my window, and instead there was a card and some cookies.”

“I thought there would be a brick through my window, and instead there was a card and some cookies,” Amundsen said at the forum.

Later, at Emerald City Tattoo and Supply, Amundsen said that the community and media response to the incident has been overwhelming.

“I don’t feel like a victim anymore,” Amundsen said. “The vocal minority of douchebags backs down when you call them out. But I am exhausted. It’s been hitting me from all angles, but I have to remember that it’s about more than me.”

Amundsen, who has been with his husband Gary Murphy for more than 36 years and operated in Lake City for 26 years, said that the support he’s received shows how much Seattle has changed.

“It was totally different coming out as a young gay guy in the 70s,” Amundsen said. “It’s been really scary before for people to come out. I had people saying ‘hey fag’ to me in high school. Now we have a lot of community support.”

After Amundsen's story went public, he received numerous letters of support. One reads, in part: "You are both loved & valued. I pray for the day hate dies." (Photo by Alex Bruell)
After Amundsen’s story went public, he received numerous letters of support. One reads, in part: “You are both loved & valued. I pray for the day hate dies.” (Photo by Alex Bruell)

Ritter echoed Amundsen’s reflections on how hate crimes have evolved over time.

“We don’t have the large groups assaulting people like we did in the 80’s,” Ritter said. “That dynamic has not happened in over twenty years. What we see now is just individuals confronting these victims.“

Amundsen says that despite the love and support he’s received, the event has affected him. It’s imparted a cautiousness that he wishes he didn’t have to have.

“I haven’t changed a thing about me, but I have added something — looking over my shoulder,” Amundsen said. “I hate it. When people run and hide rather than confront you face-to-face, it brings up fear.”

“Sometimes I worry I might have to go back in the closet,” Amundsen said.

Amundsen reaffirmed his hope for the future despite the chaos and uncertainty he’s experienced in the last few days, and shared what’s worked for him in getting through it.

“It gets worse before it gets better, but the majority of people are behind you,” Amundsen said. “Don’t turn the other cheek. Stand up. People who don’t pay attention are part of the problem.”

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