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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Notes from the Underbelly

What is a Hate Crime?

Some weeks, there gets to be so much to report, I literally cannot report on it all. This was one of those weeks. In fact the constant flury of activity has created a backlog of stories that need to be reported or commented on.

We learned nearly two weeks ago that was originally thought to be a hate crime, was in fact a ploy used by a group of teenagers to deceive police and throw them off their trail.

From the Davis Enterprise on January 14, 2008:
"Davis police announced this morning the arrest of a local teen and the pending arrests of four others on suspicion of vandalizing Holmes Junior High School last month with a large amount of graffiti, some of it bearing racial slurs.

But while police initially investigated the incident as a hate crime , they later determined that the slurs — targeting Asians, African Americans and Latinos — were used as a tactic "to throw off the investigation," Sgt. Scott Smith said.

On Friday, detectives arrested a 14-year-old African-American girl in connection with the case, describing her as the organizer of the vandalism spree. Four other girls, ranging in age from 13 to 15, were expected to be taken into custody this morning."
The community originally reacted to these attacks as though they were hate crimes. I would argue that they still are. According to Sgt. Smith:
"Through our investigation, we obtained confessions from all the parties, and they were consistent in their statements that the motive for the racial slurs was to make people believe that a white person had done this."
Some argue that hate crimes are actually just thought crimes, dependent on motivation and hate for their force. Of course all crimes are in part thought crimes, motivation helps differentiate first degree murder from involuntary manslaughter. But hate crimes are more than that. They are in fact an act of terrorism aimed not just at an individual victim but at an entire community. Thus I would argue that this crime is just as much a hate crime as it would be if a white person had done it.

Does the fact that the perpetrator was black, change the impact it had on the community when the crime was first detected? No. In fact we can add to it that they were trying to frame white community members for the crime.

Finally, the reaction from the Principal of Holmes Junior High:
"Derek Brothers, principal of Holmes Junior High, today described the vandalism as an "unfortunate incident." He declined to comment further, citing the ongoing police investigation, but provided a copy of a letter sent home to parents last week.

"These crimes are extremely disturbing and contrary to all we believe and teach. Although unfortunate, such incidents do provide teaching opportunities about racism and hate crimes ," the letter says. "Many of our teachers will be discussing this incident in their classrooms and making clear that what has happened is unacceptable for our schools, our community and our country.

"As parents, you can reinforce these lessons and help your children understand that hate language hurts all of us and damages the very fabric of our democratic society," Brothers says. "
Frankly I do not see how the fact that the perpetrators were not white changes the impact of the incident. At the end of the day, a hate crime is a hate crime. I think we have just as much of a problem now as we thought we had a month ago. Maybe even a larger problem.

Open Government

I do not know how many people saw this item earlier this week in the local paper:
"Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley was honored today with the Freedom of Information Award by the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the California Society of Newspaper Editors. The award was presented at a luncheon at the Government Affairs Day Luncheon at the Sheraton Hotel in Sacramento.

The award was based in large part on Cooley's sponsorship of Senate Bill 690 (Calderon) in 2007. This bill grants the public greater access to information about criminal charges and the outcome of criminal cases.

In accepting the award, Cooley credited Special Assistant District Attorney Jim Provenza, a Davis resident, for the new law.

'Without Jim's tireless efforts, this important freedom of information law would not have been adopted,' Cooley said.

He went on to note that, in addition to representing prosecutors full time at the state Capitol, Provenza served last year as president of the Davis Board of Education.

'Under Jim's leadership, the school board implemented a sunshine policy that provides much greater public access to meetings and documents than that required by the Brown Act and the Public Records Act.'

Provenza has said previously he views these laws as minimum standards.

'Making government accessible to the very people who fund it is fundamental in a democracy,' Provenza said in a news release. 'It's frustrating we still have to make that known in some circles, but as long as I serve the public, in whatever capacity, open government will be a priority.'"
This blog and this blog writer have long been dedicated to greater public access to information and sunshine. As we speak, behind the scenes, efforts are underway in conjunction with local government officials to further open the process and provide the public with access to information about what is happening in their government. Transparency is the greatest and most important principle in democratic government.

Senate Bill 690 is a modest effort that amends the law to establish procedures for the release of Summary Criminal History Information. Summary criminal history information includes basic blotter sheet information such as a person’s name, physical description, date of arrests, arresting agencies, booking numbers, charges, dispositions and other data. It gives the public greater access to specific details about a subjects criminal history. It would make these detail subject to the Public Records Act, so that any person could make a written request for that information.

This is not a new thing for Jim Provenza. While a member of the school board in Davis, Mr. Provenza fought long and hard to conduct meetings in open session unless specifically precluded to by law. When he first came to the board, the general practice was for the board to do things in closed session. The Brown Act specifically requires public business to be done in public unless interests of privacy or litigation specifically preclude it, but that was not the practice of the board when he first arrived.

California still has among the weakest public records disclosure requirements in the country, with a great amount of information still exempt from disclosure. The failure of the State Legislature last year to reauthorize civil police oversight and allow police disciplinary records become public (SB 1019) was a devastating blow to free speech and open government advocates. However, SB 690 was rightly seen as a step in the right direction.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting