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By Lindsay Hicks
Originally published on the Auburn Examiner

The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office (KCPAO) filed its 56th hate crime case in December, 2020 – a significant increase to previous years and a new record for the county.

“This is something that’s a really significant number to us and that we’ve been talking and thinking a lot about,” said David Bannick, a Deputy Prosecuting Attorney and Hate Crime Co-Lead for the KCPAO during a press conference in December.

The KCPAO filed 56 hate crime cases from 91 referrals in 2020. There were five hate crimes filed in a single week in December alone. “Among those that we declined as felony cases, 10 were sent to municipal courts for consideration there,” said Casey McNerthney, KCPAO Director of Communications.

In 2019, 38 hate crime cases were filed from 56 referrals. “Among the cases that were not filed as felony cases, 10 were sent to municipal courts and six more were filed in our District Court,” McNerthney said. Thirty cases were filed in 2018.

What is a Hate Crime?

According to the Washington State Legislature, a person is guilty of a hate crime offense if “he or she maliciously and intentionally commits one of the following acts because of his or her perception of the victim’s race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression or identity, or mental, physical, or sensory disability.”

“There is a distinction between hate crimes – which are defined by legal statute – and hate incidents, which may involve protected (even if abhorrent) speech,” McNerthney said. For example, one of the referred cases declined by the KCPAO was an incident where a woman was called a “Karen.” This alone is not enough for a felony hate crime charge. “[This] does not mean that we endorse hateful language, even if the language or actions may not be criminal.”

A hate crime is a class C felony.

The offender’s actions have to be blatant for a case to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. “We look to people’s words. We look to people’s social media. We look to their actions and we look to also how the victim felt,” Bannick said, “We found we can get a lot of insight from talking to victims.”

Before 2019, the Hate Crime felony charge was called Malicious Harassment. State lawmakers passed the state’s first-ever hate crime bill last year, making the offense easier to understand for victims, judges, and the community overall. “The crime is the same, it’s the name that changed,” Bannick explained, “calling something what it is also provides transparency and makes our system work better instead of using a confusing legal term.”

The bill also generated a committee that includes the Attorney General’s Office studying hate crimes in Washington State. That group expects to make recommendations for new legislation around hate crime laws.

A Commonality Among Offenders

According to King County Prosecuting Attorney Leandra Craft, mental health and substance abuse play a significant role in hate crime offenses. “Typically, the people who have mental health issues and substance are not getting help because of Covid,” Craft said.

This complicates the cases, according to Bannick. “In every hate crime case that involves a person who is mentally ill and hurts another person, Leandra and I have to make that decision: How badly do we want to set a punishment for a person and how do we balance that with helping a person.”

Bannick said their main goal is to make sure an offender never commits a hate crime again.

“If we have the choice between someone going to jail for three months or someone completing classes once a week for three months, I think we always want someone to take those classes to address what they need to get better and get help,” Bannick said, “The hard part is when someone’s conduct is so serious or so violent that it’s not appropriate to reduce the case to a misdemeanor. And that definitely happens.”

Mental health court helps offenders receive treatment. According to Craft, there is no felony-level mental health court in King County. Mental Health Court is only available in King County through District Court, which handles gross misdemeanors and misdemeanors.

Protesters gather in Seattle, carrying signs and banners. In the distance a group of Seattle PD officers and cars are seen blocking the road. The image is split, with the protesters being in black and white and the police being in color. One banner reads "racism is the deadliest virus"
Protesters in Seattle during Summer 2020 | Photo by John Huguley Read “I Was Never the Same” now.

The Rise in Hate

The country reached a massive divide over the summer, following the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a white police officer. The incident started a snowball effect of Black Lives Matter protestors throughout the country. This incident, coupled with the coronavirus pandemic that originated in China, and fueled by prejudiced remarks by political figures in power, created a lot of racial tension in the United States.

According to a Pew Research Center survey released in July 2020, Four in 10 Asian and Black individuals reported adverse experiences due to their race or ethnicity since the pandemic began.

The most recent data presented by the KCPAO, the most common victims of hate crimes in Seattle are Black people and gay men. King County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Leandra Craft mentions that hate crimes against the Asian-American community, presumably due to the coronavirus pandemic, have also been rising.

The Seattle Police Department prioritizes these offenses and has a detective specifically assigned to hate crime investigations. “The number of hate crimes that get filed is really a function of how many hate crimes get reported and get written up by police and sent to our office,” Bannick said, “there’s likely dozens of hate crimes that go unreported or do not ever make it to us. That’s why one of our priorities this year … is really working on outreach.”

It Happens Here, Too

It might be easy for some to believe the repugnant acts that qualify as hate crimes would or could not happen in their community. For others, they do not have to wonder as they already know it is possible.  Auburn and South King County are no exception.

In November 2018, Auburn resident Julian Tuimuaga was given the maximum sentence possible- 13 years in prison- for violently attacking DaShawn Horne with a baseball bat. On January 20, 18-year old Tuimuaga filmed Horne’s bloodied and lifeless body lying on the ground after the attack while shouting racial slurs. According to court documents, Tuimuaga violently bludgeoned Horne because he had spent the night with Tuimuaga’s sister.

Horne, 27, suffered traumatic brain injuries. The attack was so violent that the officers believed they were responding to a homicide scene. Three years later Horne continues steady progress in his recovery.

During gay pride month in June 2020, 38 pride flags were stolen and removed from downtown Burien. Stickers for the white nationalist hate group Patriot Front were posted around Burien the same night the flags were stolen. Being within the scope of a hate crime, the Burien Police Department is investigating the incident.

On Oct. 26, 2020, two Auburn men were arrested on felony hate crime charges for chasing and beating a Black man in Federal Way, in the 30300 block of Ninth Avenue South. According to witnesses on the scene, Travis Phillips, 34, and Eric Wise, 33, assaulted the victim by punching, kicking, and dragging him out of his BMW while yelling racial slurs. Phillips and Wise then stole the victim’s shoes and wallet, according to charging documents.  The offenders initially told responding officers that the victim had rear-ended their vehicle. A few moments later, Phillips indicated to the officer that they assaulted the man because he was Black.

The victim sustained severe facial injuries. According to charging documents, his eyes were swollen shut, and he was bleeding profusely. Phillips and Wise were charged with first-degree robbery and felony hate crime.

A few months later, on Metro Bus 7173 in Kent, Cheryl Coleman, a Black woman, physically assaulted a female passenger on Dec. 9. She did not know the victim, a white woman, before the attack.

Coleman called the victim many racial slurs during the incident and after. When responding officers arrived at the scene (a Black man and a white woman), the white officer was also called racial slurs. In response to her arrest by the Black officer, Coleman called him an “Uncle Tom.”

It Didn’t End in 2020

Six days into the new year, an estimated 800 insurrectionists pushed through the front lines of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. to protest the certification of the election of then president-elect Joseph Biden. Among those individuals was unincorporated South King County resident 30-year-old Ethan Nordean, the self-described “Sergeant of Arms” of the Seattle Chapter of the Proud Boys. The Proud Boys, according to civil rights organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, is classified as an all-male, far-right hate group. The Proud Boys clashed with BLM supporters in various cities during the nation-wide protests against racial injustice and police brutality over the summer.

Nordean has since been charged with obstructing an official proceeding and other charges in connection with his involvement at the capital, where five people were killed. If sentenced for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection, Nordean faces up to 30 years in prison.

The KCPAO filed its first hate crime charge of 2021 against a Seattle man accused of calling a Metro driver a racial slur and threatening to shoot her. The charges were filed one day after the US Capitol attack.

Getting The Word Out

People must understand what hate crimes are, according to Bannick, because not a lot of people are aware. “We really want to talk to as many groups of people as possible to get that word out and let people know that if this happens to them that it is something their local government takes very, very seriously and is looking to file a felony charge for.”

There are low numbers of reported hate crimes for people who are transgender, people who are immigrants, and who are from other racial groups, according to Bannick. “I don’t think that’s because those people are not targeted for hate crimes and never face racial harassment. I think that’s because those types of hate crimes are less likely to be reported.”

Being hate crime co-leads for the KCPAO, one of Bannick and Craft’s main goals is to reach out to more community members and be a valuable resource for law enforcement who want to refer a case as a hate crime.

“This is an area we feel needs special care and special attention, “Bannick said, “We really take pride in doing that.”

To write this article the Auburn Examiner utilized King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office charging documents, King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office press conference, Auburn Police Department case files, Pew Research, the Southern Poverty Law Center, information from the B-Town Blog, and US Department of Justice charging documents.