Calif. Region Battles Rise in Hate Crimes
Calif. Region Battles Rise in Hate Crimes
Hate crime incidents are down throughout California, except for the remote desert region east of Los Angeles known as the High Desert that includes San Bernardino and Riverside counties. Member station KPCC's Steven Cuevas reports on demographic and economic changes in the region that have spurred tensions.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
This next story takes us to the remote desert region east of Los Angeles known as the High Desert. For years, many of the towns there have struggled with the reputation of racial intolerance. Even as fewer hate crimes are being reported throughout the state of California, San Bernardino and Riverside counties in High Desert are exceptions. A possible hate crime in the town of Hesperia has residents on edge. From member station KPCC in Los Angeles, Steven Cuevas reports.
STEVEN CUEVAS reporting:
Henry and Sonja Engulo(ph) live in Hesperia, a small town on the western tip of the Mojave Desert, about 80 miles east of Los Angeles. It's not far from the banks of the Mojave River, that's where Henry Engulo says his family was hiking one day in January.
Mr. HENRY ENGULO: Out of all the room that's out there, these idiots in this truck, sure enough, they rolled their windows down and out came the `Get out of here,' you know, `Go back to Mexico.' I try to approach them to get their license plate. One of them guys jumped out with a gun, `We're going to kill you Mexicans,' you know? All I thought of was, `Yeah, I'm going to get shot in front of my kids.'
CUEVAS: The young men in the truck were white. After a brief standoff, they sped off, but not before Engulo got a good look at them, their truck and its license plate number. The Engulos reported the incident to a San Bernardino Sheriff's Department deputy. According to the official police summary, which Engulo pulls from a large stack of papers related to the case, no action was taken.
Mr. ENGULO: And all he did was...
(Soundbite of paper shuffling)
Mr. ENGULO: ...write something down on his computer. `OK. Well, we'll look into it.' He never showed up. He just went back to the station and nothing happened.
CUEVAS: You got the license plate number.
Mr. ENGULO: I got the license plate number. I gave--what else did they want? For me to find out where they lived and apprehend them myself, you know, and shot while I was doing it.
CUEVAS: The Engulos filed a complaint against the officer and after that, the couple says the department retaliated. Patrol cars cruised by their house at odd hours. Henry Engulo says he was verbally abused and intimidated by a sheriff's deputy during a routine traffic stop. It took five months for investigators to even begin looking into Engulos' original hate crime complaint. Joe Cusamonto(ph) was captain of the County Sheriff's Hesperia Division. He can't say why it's taken so long for police to begin work, but he denies Engulo's charges that deputies tried to intimidate the couple or that the department picks on Latino residents.
Captain JOE CUSAMONTO: The demographics of the area are very mixed. There's no data that would support that anywhere. If you're looking at just like arrest stats, you know, I doubt that you would show that their arrest stats are higher for Hispanics than they are for whites or blacks or Asians.
CUEVAS: Recent statistics show that hate crimes are on the rise in this region of the state. A state attorney general's office report found that between 2002 and 2003, San Bernardino and Riverside counties experienced a 19 percent increase in hate crimes, while the rest of the state saw a 10 percent decrease.
Professor BRIAN LEVIN (Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism; California State University, San Bernardino): Do we have pockets of problems? Yeah.
CUEVAS: Professor Brian Levin heads the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino.
Prof. LEVIN: By the same token, I think part of this deals with growing pains. I think you could make the case that nearly every county in Southern California over the last five to seven years has had this kind of problem to some degree.
CUEVAS: What's important to ask, says Levin, is what are communities doing to help quell racial intolerance and violence. Henry and Sonja Engulo and several other Latino families attended a community meeting on hate crime a few weeks ago. The meeting helped the Engulos feel like they weren't the only victims in the area. To the couple, it was both reassuring and troubling.
Mr. ENGULO: We came from the San Gabriel Valley-LA area so my kids wouldn't grow up in the environment that I grew up and all the gang stuff down there. I mean, we got away from that, but we got into something worse, you know.
CUEVAS: Engulo is pursuing his case beyond San Bernardino County. He's contacted Amnesty International, the US Department of Justice and US Senator Barbara Boxer. In a letter, the senator's office promised to open a formal inquiry into Engulo's claims against the San Bernardino Sheriff's Department and the incident that sparked the hate crime charges.
For NPR News, I'm Steven Cuevas in San Bernardino County.
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