Fighting hate crime with education

In the wake of numerous highly-publicized hate crimes on Long Island, community leaders are advocating for more education to prevent future incidents.

The Nassau County District Attorney’s office created a special unit on Feb. 27 specifically to prosecute hate crimes. Caryn Stepner, chief of the new hate crimes unit, is hoping to bring attention to the problem before it escalates further.

“We’re trying to educate the community that hate and prejudice biases are not appropriate and specifically if they use hate or bias in committing a crime, then the exposure and their punishment could be enhanced,” Stepner said.

New York State ranks fourth in the country in terms of total hate crimes, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.  Even though the Nassau County Police Department reported in March that crimes in Nassau County are decreasing, Stepner said 56 hate crimes were reported in the county last year. Forty-two of these were anti-Semitic. Currently, the unit has eight felony cases pending; four people have been indicted. Crimes involving prejudice are punished more severely by being upgraded from a misdemeanor to a felony.

“We’re trying to get people to appreciate the fact that there’s no place for it. If they do commit a crime based on race, bias, or hate, that the punishment is going to be higher,” said Stepner.

Nassau County has been victimized by several anti-semitic crimes in recent months. In February, the Mid Island Y Jewish Community Center in Plainview received a bomb threat and a car was spray-painted with swastikas in Mineola last December.  

“The climate, in general, is a very tough one at the present time. It’s something both government and society must take very seriously,” said Rabbi Anchelle Perl from the Congregation Beth Sholom Chabad in Mineola.

Perl participated in a program with two minors involved with anti-Semitic hate crimes. The minors were required to visit the Holocaust Memorial Center in Glen Cove and listen to a Holocaust survivor. Perl, a second generation Holocaust survivor, believes hate crimes often come from a place of ignorance.    

“What’s missing today is education and rehabilitation in terms of understanding the seriousness,” said Perl.

In the future, Perl hopes educational sessions will be expanded to all offenders. He communicated with the DA office to organize these events. Stepner agreed that similar programs may be applied to different types of hate crimes moving forward.

Elaine Gross, president of Erase Racism, challenged community leaders to do even more to fight hate.

“People who are in leadership must be held to account and we need to make sure that the people who are in those kinds of positions realize that they will not be in there for long if in fact, they do not take a leadership role in countering this,” said Gross.

According to Gross, hate has been “legitimized” which encourages people to commit crimes. When someone concealing hate sees another person promoting similar thoughts on television or social media, they are more likely to act on it.

“They [hate crime offenders] may have been harboring these ideas and these thoughts all along but they are given an opportunity to take action in a way that leads to confirm their beliefs and their ideas rather them feeling that they’re on the outside,” said Gross.

Gross added that a climate of fear may prevent some people from reporting crimes.

Gabriela Andrade, an immigration and community organizer at Make the Road New York, believes attitudes toward minorities and immigrants are getting worse.  

“Even if someone is harassing them or someone has threatened them some people don’t want to say anything because they’re afraid. The fact that people are very scared and afraid makes them very vulnerable,” said Andrade.

To counter this fear, Andrade and her organization host workshops on Long Island which help inform people about their rights and to erase any doubts they may have about the police.

“We want them to be ready and know their rights and know they shouldn’t be afraid.”