Hate Crimes not a problem in El Paso

By Laura Smitherman

El Paso Times, 1/20/98, p.4b

While firestorms of prejudice have erupted in other areas of the country, not one criminal case in El Paso has been prosecuted under hate-crime laws enacted this decade.

The number of hate crimes reported to police -- less than 20 a year since 1992 also seem to reflect a relatively harmonious community.

But local civil rights activists say those statistics could be misleading.  Representatives from several organizations gathered to discuss the problem at a workshop called "Anatomy of a Hate Crime" sponsored by Project Change Monday.

The workshop, which also commemorated Martin Luther King Jr's. birthday, featured national civil-rights crusader Morris Dees as a speaker.  His organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center, created the award-winning educational program "Teaching Tolerance."

Dees called El Paso a model community that rivals other big cities with programs like Project Change, which fights racism through community partnership. and institutions like the Holocaust Museum. However. Dees pointed out that economic disparities still plague El Paso.

Other speakers contended the incidence of hate crime in El Paso actually is increasing. Rob Knight of LAMBDA GLBT Community Services, a gay and lesbian nonprofit group, said his organization recorded 176 anti-gay incidents, including more than 85 assaults, in 1996 a 34 percent increase over the year before.

Police documented only one anti-gay hate crime in 1996. Knight said most of the victims who contacted his organization did not want to go to the police fearing retribution from their assailants or prejudice
from authorities.

The Rev. Johnnie Washington, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, also said discrepancies in statistics arise from fear of retaliation:

"Frankly, I think law enforcement is doing a pretty good job. But people are coming to us and not to the police.  So we're working with law enforcement and giving them the information."

Part of the difficulty in reporting hate crime lies in legal definitions, said Lt. Michael Czerwinsky of the EI Paso Police Department's Intelligence Unit.

"We have a lot of different groups who want to come forward and be counted," he said. "But when you compare the cases with the law, often there is not a match."

Across Texas - Hate crimes reported in Texas in 1996: